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Ireland ranked highest in Europe for boosters as elective care may be cancelled due to Covid

Strict close contact rules and the prevalence of Covid-19 have caused worker shortages in some sectors.

A queue for a vaccination centre in Dublin
A queue for a vaccination centre in Dublin
Image: Sam Boal

Updated Jan 4th 2022, 7:45 PM

IRELAND HAS THE highest booster uptake in Europe, according to new data released by the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) this evening.

New figures show that 57% of over 18s in Ireland have received a Covid-19 booster jab, giving Ireland the highest level of vaccination uptake in the EU, with both Denmark and Austria behind at 53.1% and 53% respectively.

Over 85% of over 60s and 94% of over 70s and 80s have received a booster jab, with over 2.2 million boosters being administered in total.

It comes as hospitals have begun to suspend some elective care amid growing pressure on the health service due to Covid-19.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin praised vaccination centre staff, pharmacists and GPs for their work on the booster rollout.

He encouraged people to continue to get boosted, saying that it gives better protection against severe illness and hospitalisation with the Omicron variant.

“This is important because boosters are proving effective in reducing serious illness and hospitalisation against COVID and the Omicron variant,” said the Taoiseach in a tweet.

Impact on hospitals

Paul Reid said today that it remained unclear when Ireland would reach the peak of the current Omicron-driven wave of the virus.

The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 jumped by 80 overnight.  As of 8am this morning, 884 people were in hospital with the virus, of whom 93 are in intensive care.  

In a letter to health service managers, Reid said that where there are staff shortages in Covid-related services, staff must be redeployed from other areas to provide support.

Reid urged health managers to prioritise unplanned Covid care as he outlined that the number of patients in hospital with Covid-19 has jumped from 360 to 884 in 10 days.

He added that there are a “significant number” of health staff off work with Covid-related sickness.

On the letter sent to managers, Reid told RTÉ’s News at One: 

It does set out clear priorities for all of the services to focus on and they are simply: time-dependent care, which is really important, emergency care, Covid-related care. And importantly, for us keeping testing and tracing and indeed vaccinations resources going. 

Reid said that at the peak of the January 2021 wave of infection there were 2,020 Covid-19 patients in hospital with 220 in ICU and that “we are all trying to avoid” similar numbers this year.  

He said there are indications that the severity of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 “is not as strong at an individual basis” than earlier strains but that “the force of impact of the volume of cases” on the health service represented a risk. 

Leaders meeting

Reid was speaking as the leaders of the three government coalition parties met this afternoon to discuss the ongoing Covid-19 situation. 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan were considering worker shortages caused by strict close contact rules and the prevalence of Covid-19 due to the highly-transmissible variant Omicron.

It is expected that the government will ask Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan to relax the isolation rules for fully vaccinated close contacts of confirmed cases of Covid-19.

A full Cabinet meeting is to be held tomorrow. 

GP services

It comes as the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) said it has been asked to prioritise the vaccination of patients over the age of 16 as the Omicron variant spreads.

The GP group has stressed that they are still available to patients for urgent queries, and urged people with health concerns to contact their GP, but added that routine work such as insurance medicals, surveillance bloods and planned reviews will be deferred.

The Medical Director of the ICGP Dr Diarmuid Quinlan said “many GP practices now have staff working remotely due to Omicron”.

“While face-to-face consultations were the norm, good care can be delivered remotely. We understand that some people will be frustrated at their inability to contact their GP as readily as heretofore. 

“To support our national response to Omicron, General Practice will prioritise Covid-19 work, while also assessing people with acute illness.”

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Testing capacity

Despite a high number of daily Covid-19 cases being reported each day, the true number is estimated to be much higher again due to the lack of PCR tests being available to people at the moment. 

Due to the current large volume of cases at present, reported daily case numbers are currently based on lab-confirmed positive swabs sent to the Covid Care Tracker rather than officially processed cases. 

The latest figures sent to the Covid Care Tracker show that positivity rates for lab-based tests now almost 57%. 

Damien McCallion of the HSE’s vaccination programme and test-and-trace system has said that PCR testing capacity has been increased to 300,000 tests per week but that access to testing “remains a challenge” due to the high levels of Covid-19 in the community. 

As of yesterday, people aged 4-39 with symptoms of Covid-19 are being asked to book HSE antigen tests before booking a PCR tests if the antigen tests are positive. 

The antigen tests will be sent out to the individual with McCallion saying the HSE has capacity to send over 350,000 tests per week. 

“We did 39,000 PCR tests yesterday and we made a change in the system yesterday were those people in the lower risk groups from 4-39 now avail of antigen testing and we have a capacity there of 350,000. So in total this week, has a capacity for 650,000. But we still expect challenges to remain just given the high level of prevalence,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

McCallion added however that there is a limit to testing capacity and that this is being experienced “globally” due to the Omicron variant. 

He said it is hoped that yesterday’s change will ease the pressure on PCR testing capacity but that the system is likely to be under strain for weeks. 

“Hopefully that will alleviate it a little bit but I do expect the system still to be under strain over the coming weeks, just given the high numbers that we’re seeing coming through, the high level of positivity and just the anecdotal evidence I suppose that we’re hearing in all communities.” 

With reporting from Rónán Duffy, Tadgh McNally and Press Association.

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