The number of Covid-19 hospitalisations in Ireland is on the verge of hitting double the peak seen in the first wave of the virus, following a surge of 45,770 new cases in the last seven days alone.
Almost a third (31%) of all cases in Ireland since the pandemic began have come in the last week, sparking grim warnings of what lies ahead for hospital workers.
Despite some signs of hope with the increased rollout of vaccines to healthcare workers at the weekend, HSE chief Paul Reid has confirmed the stark reality that a record 1,421 coronavirus patients are now being treated in hospitals — a figure that has more than quadrupled in the past two weeks, from 321 on December 27.
There were 136 additional admissions to hospitals in the past 24 hours.
The HSE has begun accessing the surge capacity agreed with private hospitals as the system comes under increasing pressure.
Mr Reid said private hospitals have begun providing some non-Covid urgent care to public patients in recent days.
It's clear that most people have retreated to the safety of our homes. It's hard, but needed. We've early signs of the benefit of this. However our healthcare staff will be dealing with increased pressure & strain next week. What we do today helps them to save lives. @HSELive— Paul Reid (@paulreiddublin) January 10, 2021
An agreement was reached between the HSE and private hospitals last week which gives the HSE access to additional capacity, if needed.
Mr Reid said that the health service was under increasing strain.
"Already this week, private hospitals are taking some urgent non-Covid care and supporting us," he said. "So we have, in essence, triggered those processes already.
“Our health system is under increasing strain. The best support we can all now give is to avoid getting sick with Covid. This will help to get us out the other side of this.”
There were 37 vacant intensive care unit beds as well as 11 paediatric beds available on Sunday.
In total there are 286 ICU beds across the country, an increase on 255 at the start of the surge, and the HSE is bringing in a further 16 ICU beds between this and next month.
Non-urgent care has been paused at public hospitals as the health system struggles to cope with Covid-19 cases, but cancer care and cardio care continues.
While the number of hospitalisations is rising, there is a significant reduction in the number of suitably qualified staff because they either have Covid-19 or are deemed to be closed contacts of a confirmed case, meaning trainee doctors are being asked to step up.
Cork University Hospital was caring for 126 Covid-19 patients at the weekend — around 20% of all of its inpatients.
Medical staff in CUH were told there is a “severe and abrupt shortage” of ICU nurses.
Management appealed for at least two doctors in training to step forward to cover the shifts to help ICU nurses care for a ventilated patient.
UL Hospitals Group chief executive Colette Cowan said 427 staff were unavailable for work across Limerick, Clare, and Tipperary due to the virus — up from 140 in just four days.
In an email to politicians, Ms Cowan said the total number of Covid-19 patients within the group as of last Wednesday “exceeds the maximum experienced during the peak of the first wave” and that “in recent days we have been admitting about 10 new Covid patients per day”.
There was, however, also positive developments for health workers across the country.
Around 1,200 frontline healthcare workers got the Covid-19 jab at a mass vaccination clinic in Cork city over the weekend as the HSE's vaccination efforts ramped up nationwide.
Images of people across Ireland receiving the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine brought a ray of hope in an otherwise grim week. pic.twitter.com/WX5uBVdYM1— RTÉ News (@rtenews) January 8, 2021
The single largest effort was at the South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital, where healthcare workers, including GPs and their practice staff, National Ambulance Service paramedics, public health nurses, and members of various primary healthcare teams drawn from across Cork City and country, were vaccinated across Saturday and Sunday.
SIVUH's clinical director, Dr Michelle Murphy, described it as a sign of hope for healthcare staff across the region.