The number of daily cases of coronavirus is 10 times higher than at the start of December and there will be “a large number” of deaths over the coming weeks, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) warned on Thursday.
A further 51 deaths of Covid-19 patients were reported by the Nphet at its daily media briefing on Thursday evening, 49 of which occurred in January. This brings to 2,818 the total number of deaths in the pandemic. The median age among the latest deaths was 80 years and the age range was 58 to 103.
Nphet also reported 2,608 further cases of the disease, bringing to 181,922 the total recorded to date.
With the average number of daily cases almost 10 times higher than at the end of the last lockdown on December 1st, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said clear progress was being made but “we still have a very large burden of disease”.
“It is evident that the population is working as one to reduce contacts and interrupt further transmission of the disease,” he said. “However, we are witnessing the effects of high levels of community transmission through our hospital and ICU admissions and reported deaths.”
Of the latest cases, 1,019 were in Dublin, 204 in Cork, 135 in Donegal, 132 in Galway and 131 in Kildare, with the remaining 987 cases spread across all other counties. The median age of those infected was 42 years, and 55 per cent were under 45 years.
Prof Philip Nolan, chair of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, said people collectively had done an “exceptional job” over the past fortnight in driving down transmission of the disease.
Most indicators have fallen rapidly and hospital admissions were starting to decline, he said. However, he said the incidence among older people remained “worryingly high” and has even increased among over-85s.
The number of deaths, now averaging 44 a day, compared to 32 last April, is the highest seen during the pandemic, he pointed out.
Two weeks ago, case numbers were growing by 18 per cent a day, but today they are falling by 7 to 8 per cent, according to Prof Nolan. This was a “huge achievement”, he said, but it would be difficult to sustain because of the new, more transmissible variant identified in the UK and because people would find it difficult to maintain such a low level of contacts. The UK variant accounted for 58 out of 94 samples most recently tested, or more than 60 per cent.
The number of cases per day may fall to 1,400-1,700 by the end of the month, Prof Nolan forecast, adding that it was difficult to predict trends beyond that.
There will, however, be “a large number” of deaths over the coming weeks.
The 14-day incidence of the disease now stands at 1,141 cases per 100,000 people nationally. Monaghan has the highest county incidence, followed by Louth.
The reproduction number, a measure of how many other people a confirmed case infects, stands at 0.5-0.8, according to Prof Nolan.
He said this was lower than he had expected.
“Incidence is gradually falling but remains very high across all age groups but particularly in those aged 85 and older. We have to keep the reproduction number below 1.0 if we are to successfully emerge out of this current wave.”
On Thursday afternoon, there were 1,943 Covid-19 patients in hospital, of which 214 were in intensive care units.
There have been 532 deaths of Covid-19 patients so far this month, compared to 174 in December and 164 in November.
Of the 483 deaths reported this month up to Tuesday, 55 were linked to hospital outbreaks and 155 to care home outbreaks, of which 139 were in nursing homes.
Under a change to testing rules, any positive obtained from an antigen test will test as a positive case if carried out within the HSE. Up to now, only PCR tests were counted as positives.
Officials said they were looking at using antigen testing more widely for symptomatic cases and were working with ambulance staff about their possible use for outbreaks in nursing homes and hospitals.
Dr Holohan criticised airlines for advertising holiday flights on the basis that vaccines against Covid-19 will soon be available. Without mentioning the airlines by name, Dr Holohan urged people thinking of planning a holiday abroad “in the not terribly distant future” to follow public health advice and stay home.
He hit out at “inducements” in advertisements suggesting that people should plan to travel given that vaccines are “on the horizon”. He said these were “not very responsible”
Earlier, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said restaurants and bars could stay closed until the end of May. He said that given the unpredictability of Covid-19, especially with new variants emerging, “nothing could be ruled out” in terms of lifting restrictions.
Asked in an interview on Virgin Media News on Thursday if restaurants and bars would remain closed until the end of May, Mr Martin responded: “I am not ruling it out.
“If we’ve learned anything, this virus behaves you know and evolves and changes. So, I think we can’t make predictions that far out.
Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, said the key date for his industry was now the bank holiday weekend at the start of May. He said that by that stage the whole industry would effectively have the status of a start-up and there would need to be a programme of recapitalisation and debt forgiveness.
“By then most business will be closed for so long they will have a huge amount of legacy debt. Business supports are good but don’t cover all the debt and the bills. What we are looking for is debt forgiveness,” he said.