Upwards of 6,000 healthcare staff are on coronavirus-related leave as hospitals brace themselves for a sharp rise in patients infected with the disease this week.
The high number of health workers infected or deemed close contacts of confirmed cases is expected to cause major disruption to services as hospitals return to normal operations following Christmas week.
Ahead of what is traditionally the busiest week of the year for the health service, sources said the number of staff on leave due to Covid-19, which stood at 3,800 before Christmas, is now higher than the 5,000 reached last autumn or the 6,000 recorded during last January’s surge.
The Health Service Executive is due to publish updated figures on Covid-related absence later this week. But its chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said one in nine intensive care workers were unable to work at present due to infection or being a close contact. He said one in 10 staff at the Mater hospital in Dublin was on Covid-related leave.
Dr Henry warned that the “sheer force of numbers” as the Omicron variant rapidly spreads could still lead to hospitals coming under pressure.
“While hospitals are coping, we are viewing with increasing concern the rapid increase in case numbers and community transmission of the virus and the effect this is having on staff who become infected or are deemed close contacts of a case,” Dr Henry told The Irish Times.
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Some 17,071 cases of the disease were reported in the State on Sunday, a day after a record 23,281 cases were recorded on Saturday, almost three times the level of seen during last January’s peak. The Department of Health said these figures were “provisional” due to the high incidence of the disease.
The leaders of the three Government parties – Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan – are due to meet tomorrow evening to discuss its response to the latest Covid-19 surge ahead of a full Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
A Government source said that with such widespread infection, they expected guidelines for close contacts would be relaxed in an effort to prevent staff shortages closing down sections of the economy and society.
The Cabinet will also examine following the recommendation of the US Centre for Disease Control to reduce the self-isolation period for those infected with the Omicron variant from 10 days to five.
“It is in the mix,” said the source.
Mr Ryan told RTÉ Radio’s This Week programme that notwithstanding the huge case numbers, schools would reopen as planned on Thursday.
Modelling for the department suggests the current wave driven by Omicron will peak between January 10th and 15th. However, there is said to be uncertainty around the modelling due to the lack of information about the new variant and the public response to calls for reduced social mixing.
While frontline doctors are reporting reduced severity for Omicron cases, a public health source said doctors were “gloomy” over the high numbers being infected and the potential to overwhelm the health service.
There were more cases over Christmas than in the whole of 2020, but the growth in infections and the number hospitalised, which stood at 717 on Sunday, appears to be slowing, though reporting over the Christmas period tends to be uneven.
New rules on quarantine periods and the use of rapid antigen tests come into force today, designed to ease the pressure on the overwhelmed PCR testing system and allow for more staff to return to work following Covid-related absences. From today, those aged four to 39 are being advised to self-isolate if they test positive on an antigen test, and to seek a confirmatory PCR test.
An antigen test will now be accepted for receipt of enhanced illness benefit, which up to now required a PCR test.