Updated 9.15am. Additional reporting by Vivienne Clarke.
Over 6,000 healthcare staff are understood to be on Covid-related leave as the health system braces for a sharp surge in hospitalisations.
As reported by the The Irish Times, the high number of absentees is due to staff isolating after contracting the virus or being deemed a close contact.
Sources say the number of absent staff has increased dramatically from the 3,800 noted before Christmas and has surpassed the 5,000 high reached during the January 2021 surge. Exact figures for current absentee rates are expected to be published by the HSE later this week.
As a result of the volume of staff unable to work, services are likely to be disrupted around the country as operations return to normal following the Christmas period.
In a week which is traditionally the busiest of the year for the health service, the high level of Covid infections recorded over the past number of weeks is also expected to translate to a rapid increase in hospitalisations over the coming days.
HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry warned the current level of Covid transmission may put hospitals under further pressure due to the "sheer force of numbers".
On Sunday, there were 717 patients with the virus in hospital, the highest number since February 22nd, 2021 and up from 426 on Sunday, December 26th.
Despite the sharp increase in hospitalisations, the number of Covid patients in ICU has declined slightly, falling from 91 last Sunday to yesterday's 87.
The three coalition leaders, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan are expected to meet on Tuesday to discuss Covid measures in response to the latest wave of infections ahead of a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday where a relaxation of close contact rules is likely to be considered.
Meanwhile, the clinical lead on Covid for the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) Dr Nuala O’Connor has repeated a call to the public not to attend general practices for routine ailments as focus must remain on Covid care and the vaccination programme.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, Dr O’Connor said the pressure on out-of-hours services over Christmas had been “relentless” and was likely to continue this week when normal GP hours return.
Dr O’Connor urged people who were eligible for the booster vaccine to get it through one of the three channels – vaccination centres, GPs and pharmacies.
General practice would triage cases and would prioritise those with serious illness, she said, adding that there would be a return to telephone and video consultations. However, she called on the public to defer “routine” care “for a few weeks”.
As with any other workplaces, GP surgeries are also facing the difficulty of staff being out, either because they had tested positive themselves or because they were close contacts.
“We will have to see how many people are available for work tomorrow,” Dr O'Connor said.
Asked about the proposal that GPs could provide certificates for people who had a positive antigen test in order to access social welfare payments, Dr O’Connor said there had been no formal consultation with GP groups on the issue.