Ireland’s coronavirus reproduction number is now between 2.4 and 3 — the highest level seen throughout the pandemic.
Nphet’s Philip Nolan said: “At no point in the pandemic, even at the very beginning, were we seeing reproduction numbers above 1.4 or 1.6. This week we have to report the reproduction number as being somewhere between 2.4 and 3.”
The reproduction, or ‘R’ number refers to the number of people the disease is passed on to by a positive case.
Mr Nolan said he was concerned that the highly transmissible UK variant of the virus is, in part, responsible for the high R number.
Meanwhile, HSE chief Paul Reid has said the health service is dealing with an “extraordinary national crisis”.
He said reaching the milestone of more than 1,000 people with Covid-19 in hospital must be a “call to arms to the public to support the health service in the coming weeks and months”.
He added healthcare workers were fighting to save lives and they may not always succeed.
Mr Reid said “good progress” has been made in the talks with private hospitals to provide extra capacity during the current Covid-19 crisis and he urged them to “put on the green jersey at a time of national need”.
“We’re currently in detailed discussions ongoing with all of the hospital groups, and we do expect all of the hospital groups to sign up, and indeed, to sign up urgently.”
He thanked private hospitals for their support in recent weeks and months providing some care he said the HSE “couldn’t get to”.
“We are all very anxious to close out that agreement and I know Government are extremely anxious also, and we do expect to have all of the private hospitals signed up.”
At present, he said, there are 400 general beds available in the system.
Over the past seven days, he said more than 171,000 Covid-19 lab tests had been completed. Almost 170,000 swabs had been taken in the community and 95,000 contact-tracing calls had been made.
He said the figures demonstrated the volume and scale of the virus in the community.
The HSE chief also confirmed that 15,314 people have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in Ireland to date.
By the end of the week, Mr Reid said, 35,000 doses of the Pfizer BioNTech jab will have been administered overall. He described the vaccination programme as the “great light” and “great hope” as the country faces the weeks ahead.
HSE chief operations officer Anne O’Connor said an increase in outbreaks of Covid-19 in nursing homes was a cause for concern, and the situation was “deteriorating”.
She said: “Of the 177 outbreaks in long-term residential care, we know 101 of those relate to nursing homes. That number has grown very significantly.
“On the sixth of January there were 30 new outbreaks recorded in long-term residential care and four in hospitals.
“So, in our residential care sector, it’s the rate of growth and the rate of increase in outbreaks that are of concern to us.
“We’re still not back to where we were in the previous surge, however we can see the position is deteriorating.”
Ms O’Connor added that nursing homes were “very challenged” in terms of staffing.
“We’ve 101 [outbreaks] open in all nursing homes, and of the 80 of most concern, we have 880 staff off work. That’s across the private and public nursing homes.
“That’s a very significant number of staff who are unavailable to work, and that’s of very significant concern to us.”
The chief clinical officer of the HSE said “extraordinarily high” positivity rates and referrals from GPs for Covid were being recorded.
Colm Henry said there were 25,000 referrals on Monday, 18,000 on Tuesday and 14,000 on Wednesday.
“We’re seeing positive rates now in community testing from 40% to 50%, which is extraordinarily high levels,” he said.
“The message is if you think you have Covid-19, more than likely you do.”
He added: “The incidence rate is increasing across all age groups, especially young adults. This level of infection has been rising rapidly since late December and early January.”