Up to one third of patients are contracting Covid-19 while in hospital and the situation is "very serious", Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.
He said that while the number of cases was starting to fall slightly, it was not happening “at the pace we would like”.
“We are nowhere near where we need to be to ease Level 5 restrictions,” the Fine Gael leader said.
“Of course, that does not mean that schools cannot open in February. There is, of course, the possibility of opening more construction sites because they are not supposed to be closed normally in Level 5.”
Mr Varadkar said: “We know nursing home and hospital clusters are numerous. There’s a lot of them. Most deaths sadly occur in nursing homes and hospitals.”
Figures from the Chief Medical Officer up to January 14th showed that 23 of the 182 deaths in January were associated with hospital outbreaks and 38 with nursing homes.
Mr Varadkar said that “it seems that as many as a third of patients in hospital got Covid in hospital. They didn’t come in Covid-positive; they picked up Covid while in the hospital.
“Some may not be sick as a result of it, they may be sick for a different reason. But it is still a matter of genuine concern that so many people are acquiring Covid in our hospitals.”
Mr Varadkar was responding to Independent TD Denis Naughten, who questioned what was being done to address the issue.
Mr Naughten said that “not only are hospitals reservoirs for infection of vulnerable people, but they are also sources of new infection in our communities.
“These outbreaks are taking large numbers of vital frontline medical staff out of our hospitals, leaving the remaining staff struggling to provide care to patients.”
The Roscommon-Galway TD said that in December the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) expressed concern that mass testing was not being carried out in hospitals after outbreaks.
The HSE responded to say that decisions on mass testing were taken locally by hospitals which seek advice from the local public health department “and with involvement nationally from senior HSE management only where necessary”.
Mr Naughten said that “so in plain English, the buck stops with nobody”.
He asked if the proposed national outbreak control team to ensure a national standard response in addressing hospital outbreaks and mass testing had been established.
The Tánaiste said he did not know if it had but would check with the Minister for Health.