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Estimated 15,000 HSE staff out on Covid leave: 'Without derogation we would be in severe trouble'

Anne O’Connor said the HSE has estimated that 12% of its workforce is absent this week, which is “somewhere between 14,000 and 15,000″.

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Updated Jan 7th 2022, 6:51 PM

HOSPITALS ARE UNDER pressure and facing into a challenging week next week due to thousands of absences related to Covid-19 or isolation rules, the HSE Chief Operations Officer Anne O’Connor has said. 

As of last Friday there were 8,000 absences, but the number is “much higher this week” – O’Connor said the HSE has estimated that 12% of its workforce is now absent, which is “somewhere between 14,000 and 15,000″.

Dr Colm Henry, Chief Clinical Officer of the HSE told Newstalk Breakfast that without a derogation clause to the close-contact rules brought in for healthcare workers, “we would be in severe trouble”.

“This week, we’re up to one in 10 staff out, and in terms of our intensive care staff [there are] 1,800 odd over the country, perhaps 200 more, now absent on Covid related leave.”

A survey from Nursing Homes Ireland has found that an average of 8% of staff are unavailable due to Covid-19. 

The Psychiatric Nurses Association said today that up to 600 nurses in the mental health services are now absent from duty as a result of the impact of Covid-19. 

The hospitals are grappling with a surge in Covid-19 cases due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which is estimated to be at least five times more transmissible than the previous dominant variant, Delta.

This has led to a series of record-breaking daily cases being reported each day, with 25% of Ireland’s total cases for the past 12 months being reported since Christmas Day.

Despite this, the variant is thought to be less likely to progress to more severe illness through affecting the person’s lungs – it’s more likely to affect a person’s nose and throat.

But if it does travel down to the lungs, it is just as likely to cause severe illness as previous variants of Covid-19. Dr Colm Henry said that although just 5% of the eligible population are unvaccinated, over half of patients admitted to ICUs are unvaccinated.

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast, Dr Henry said that if a derogation had not been brought in for healthcare workers who are close contacts of confirmed Covid cases, they would be “in severe trouble, there’s no doubt about it”.

“We see extraordinary high levels of transmission with this variant, the positivity rates are just mind boggling at this stage, 60% positivity in community testing, and then the transmission within households is 35-40% – very high.”

If a healthcare worker is a close contact of a Covid-19 case, and if they are fully vaccinated and boosted, the first guidance is that they do the same as any other person: restrict their movements for five days, and carry out three antigen tests over five days.

But this can be ended so that they can return to work if they have a not detected antigen or PCR test result and have no symptoms of Covid-19.

The INMO is calling on the HSE to extend the curtailment of non-emergency activity until the end of January “at least” and to “make improvements to air quality” in hospitals. 

Dr Henry said that there is evidence that Omicron is less severe than previous variants.

“While there are some positive indicators coming from South Africa of a reduced severity of illness, we can’t be sure yet.

It can’t be good thing that everybody would get the infection all at the same time with the risk that entails a couple of weeks down the line if even a small proportion of those people become critically ill.

But he added: “The information we get from our colleagues on the ground or the frontline, is the illness seems to be of less severity – with less of this bad lung infection.”

When pressed on Newstalk when there would be more detailed data on how severely ill patients in hospital with Covid-19 are, Dr Henry said the HSE would be in a much better position to give information on that next week.

Pharmacies

Elsewhere, the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) has said the Omicron wave is placing community pharmacies under significant pressure. 

This is resulting in some pharmacies being required to reduce hours or close for certain days as they struggle to cope with staff shortages, the IPU said. 

It said pharmacies will continue to play a very active role in the vaccination programme.

However, people are requested to plan ahead and wherever possible order required medications, such as repeat prescriptions, well in advance. Doing so will alleviate the pressures on pharmacies while ensuring no interruption in medicine supply.

Speaking about the challenges currently being faced by pharmacies, Darragh O’Loughlin, Secretary General of the IPU said the pressures pharmacies are facing due to staff shortages as a result of Covid-19 is “exacerbating a pre-existing shortage of pharmacists and pharmacy staff that has grown more acute in recent years”.

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“These staff shortages come at a time when the demands on pharmacies have increased significantly. Each pharmacy will strive to maintain services to patients and the public, but reduced hours and temporary closures cannot be ruled out,” O’Loughlin said. 

“We would ask all members of the public to be patient when visiting their pharmacy and understand certain services may take longer than usual,” he said. 

“Where possible, ordering repeat medications in advance would be a great assistance to your pharmacist, while also ensuring you receive your medications without undue delays.”

With reporting by Hayley Halpin

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