The HSE says hospitals struggling to cope with the flu epidemic will not turn people away.
A record 656 people were waiting on trolleys yesterday and medical professionals are warning the health service could buckle under the pressure.
Liam Woods of the HSE says the flu epidemic has still not reached its peak and demand for beds will increase over the next two to three weeks.
However, he says despite pressure on resources, the system can cope.
He said: "Hospitals will not turn people away, hospitals will continue to operate.
"It's acknowledged there is a lot of strain, at the moment hospitals are coping under a lot of pressure, and I would acknowledge there is great work being done by clinical and other staff in hospitals.
"Really, we have to follow the fluency where it goes, at the moment we are probably two to three weeks away from a peak."
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation said 460 admitted patients waited on trolleys in emergency departments and 196 waited on wards.
It is the highest figure recorded by the INMO.
On January 3 last year, 612 patients were waiting for a bed.
Newly-appointed INMO general secretary, Phil Ní Sheaghdha, has sought an urgent meeting with the HSE to put a plan in place.
“What I am trying to determine from them (HSE) is what they are going to do, if, God forbid, the flu epidemic takes a hold in a way that we just couldn’t cope with,” said Ms Ní Sheaghdha.
“I am just not sure that the HSE have a plan. We have to be assured that they do, in fact, have one.”
Director of public health Dr Kevin Kelleher has predicted that the flu season could run for a further six to eight weeks.
Dr Kelleher said that there had been fewer than 10 flu-related deaths so far this winter.
Around 190 people had been hospitalised — 65 in the week before Christmas.
Dr Kelleher said hospitals had plans in place for handling flu cases, including cancelling planned activity, but it was no easy task because a flu outbreak was difficult to predict.
Health Minister Simon Harris said that no effort or resource was being spared to improve the situation.
Among the escalation measures taken by the HSE was moving patients between hospitals to make the best use of capacity.
Other measures included increasing consultant rounds and extending access to diagnostics and assessment units.
HSE national director with responsibility for winter initiative, Damien McCallion, said hospitals were having to open additional capacity earlier than planned because of an increase in patients with respiratory illnesses and more patients with complex care needs.
“Clearly when we hit a peak like this, we don’t have that capacity to grow, particularly in our medium-size hospitals,” said Mr McCallion.
It would take a number of days for medium-sized hospitals to get themselves back into a “more reasonable state”.
“With our population ageing, it is critical that we develop our primary care system to try to alleviate some of the pressure on hospitals,” he said.