As a record 656 patients waited for a hospital bed yesterday, nurses warned that the health service could buckle under pressure from the flu epidemic.
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.
The HSE was expecting the number of cases to peak later this month.
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.
St Luke’s Hospital in Kilkenny had the highest number of admitted patients waiting for a bed yesterday, at 57.
There were 26 on trolleys in the emergency department and 31 on wards.
University Hospital Limerick had the second highest number, at 55. There were 36 patients on trolleys in the emergency department and 19 on wards.
According to the HSE’s own trolley count, there were 457 admitted patients on trolleys in emergency departments yesterday with 220 waiting over nine hours for a bed.
The HSE pointed out that there were 480 patients on trolleys on the same day last year — 291 were waiting over nine hours, and this was a decrease of almost 5% in trolley waiters.
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.
Fianna Fáil’s health spokesman Billy Kelleher said the record trolley figures were a “damning indictment” of the Government’s failure to tackle hospital overcrowding.
“We need to urgently increase the number of beds available in our hospitals to help ease the burden,” said Mr Kelleher.
President of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association, Dr Tom Ryan, said the record number of patients on trolleys requiring hospital care was “entirely predictable and unacceptable”.
He said acute hospital inpatient bed numbers were cut by 1,400 in the past decade when they should have increased “at a minimum” in tandem with the country’s growing and ageing population.
As a record 656 patients wait for a bed, nurses’ union seeks reassurance that HSE has plan in place
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