The chief executive of the HSE, Paul Reid, has admitted that the Omicron variant is “rampant” and “running rife” in the community as an additional 9,006 Covid cases were confirmed on Tuesday.
As of 8am on Tuesday, 521 Covid-19 patients were in hospital, including 92 in intensive care units.
Mr Reid told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that the sheer volume of cases meant the PCR testing service was being overwhelmed.
“There is no doubt now that the virus is absolutely running rife in our communities. If you think that you have Covid, it's most likely that you have it”, he said.
Mr Reid said they were now seeing up to 50 per cent positivity rates in the community.
Extra capacity was being introduced for testing, he said. The number of tests being carried out was now at 300,000 and up to 400,000 antigen tests were being sent out. If anyone was a close contact or was experiencing symptoms they should immediately self-isolate while they wait for a test.
“The simple message is, if you think you have the virus, avoid gatherings with people.”
Mr Reid said 250,000 PCR tests were being carried out every day. “Please stick with us, yes there are delays. It is important to isolate especially with this volume of cases in the community.”
The testing service was working through cases on the basis of priority – those referred by GPs, close contacts and those with positive antigen test results. Mr Reid said that antigen testing was now “a core part of the process,” but that ultimately a PCR test was the one that determined infection.
In other countries that were a few weeks ahead of Ireland they appeared to have reached a peak, but in Ireland we were still at the early stages of the curve of Omicron, he warned. The variant was five times more transmissible than Delta and was accelerating.
Hospital numbers were holding stable at present, he said with the level of admissions the same as during the Delta wave, however, he was concerned about the lag effect which could see more hospitalisations to come.
Signs of hope
However, Mr Reid said there were early signs of hope from GPs that the Omicron variant was not as severe an illness, but this could be just among those who were vaccinated and had received their booster vaccine.
Staffing levels in the health service were down from 6,000 absences to 4,000 absences in recent weeks, but the concern was that the Omicron wave was yet to come.
Mr Reid appealed to the public to protect themselves, their family and the community which in turn would protect healthcare workers.
Difficult choices would have to be made if there was pressure on hospitals. Waiting list numbers had held in December, added Mr Reid, but difficult decisions could be ahead if hospital beds began to fill quickly after Christmas.
On a positive note, he said, two million booster/third doses of the vaccine had been administered. The vaccine campaign for children aged five years to 11 years will open for registration today with appointments being issued later in the week and vaccinations commencing on January 3rd for those in high categories and those living with family members who were high risk.