There are early signs the vaccination programme is reducing infection rates among nursing home residents and healthcare workers, a Nphet briefing heard last night.
Comparing infection rates in nursing homes now to those recorded in early January, Professor Philip Nolan said there has been a “sharp” change.
“We have seen a very sudden and sharp decrease in the number of cases … a much sharper decrease than would be explained by the decrease in the community,” the chair of the Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group said.
There were between 250 and 200 cases in each of the last two weeks, down from 1,250 in January. The number of deaths in nursing homes is also decreasing more rapidly than in the community. Prof Nolan said evidence is “indicating the protective effects of the vaccine".
Dr Lucy Jessop, director of the HSE National Immunisation Office, added: “The vaccine is already having a significant impact on our healthcare workers.
"In the last week in January almost 1,400 healthcare workers contracted Covid-19, that number was less than 300 last week.
This sea-change especially for the vulnerable elderly is “really welcome and really hopeful”, deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn added.
“This is the first really strong sign we are heading in the right direction and heading in the right direction for the longer term," he said.
Nphet will publish a paper on March 11 around visiting guidelines in nursing homes.
He predicted herd immunity could be possible by year-end, depending on vaccine supply.
Dr Glynn’s optimism was tempered by the high levels of transmission of Covid-19 in the community and he warned if society reopens too soon case numbers will soar again.
"We are very conscious of the fact that the measures we have recommended at various times, and the measures that are currently in place have had a profound impact on the economy, on small businesses, on businesspeople and employees all across the country over the past year.
"I know it is very difficult for people but unfortunately, until we get the case numbers down, if we were to release and open some of those sectors of society back up, we would see a very swift rebound in the number of cases.”
A key concern is variants now circulating.
About 91% of all cases here are of the UK variant, according to Dr Cillian De Gascun from the National Virus Reference Laboratory.
There are three travel-related cases of the Brazilian variant, and 15 mainly travel-related cases of the South African variant.
There is one case of a new variant, identified in the UK and Nigeria.
Another 35 deaths and 613 cases were confirmed by Nphet yesterday.
Meanwhile, the Irish Medical Organisation said by Sunday the over-85s at 467 GP practices will be vaccinated.
Patients from another 20 practices will attend a vaccination hub at Munster Technological University in Cork on Saturday and another 17 in Galway.
Starting from Monday 500 practices will receive vaccines, with a small number of practices still to register.