Changes to the guidance for people seeking Covid-19 PCR tests will free up approximately 50 per cent of the system's capacity after the new rules take effect from next week, the HSE hopes.
The changes were announced on Thursday evening after the Department of Health confirmed 20,554 new cases of the virus, the highest daily case count ever recorded in the State.
Under the new guidance, people aged 4-39 who show Covid symptoms must self-isolate and take regular antigen tests. This group will be instructed to only seek a PCR test if one of their antigen tests returns positive.
As reported by The Irish Times, the department said the changes, which take effect on Monday, are on account of "very large volumes of disease now being experienced and to ensure the best use of available testing capacity".
Those who are identified as close contacts but have received their booster jab more than a week prior, or have been double vaccinated and previously tested positive for the virus, will now only be required to isolate for seven days, a change from the previous guidance of 10 days.
A source from the health service told The Irish Times the changes could free up approximately 150,000 PCR test slots a week, allowing more older people who are at greater risk to secure appointments.
The strain on the testing system caused by the current wave of infections already seems to be translating to hospitalisations, with the number of Covid patients requiring hospital care surpassing 600 for the first time in a month on Thursday.
In the 24-hour period to Thursday morning, 148 people with the virus were either admitted, or received a positive test results while in hospital, bringing the total number of hospitalised Covid patients to 619, 88 of whom were receiving treatment in intensive care.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan warned "hospitalisations at this level are not sustainable and are having a significant impact on our health service", urging people to cancel New Year's Eve celebrations.