Paul Reid: Omicron variant will pose ‘significant challenge’ to health system

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
People socialising in Dublin (Damien Storan/PA) (PA Wire)
People socialising in Dublin (Damien Storan/PA) (PA Wire)

The Irish health service is already under significant pressure and is facing an uncertain few weeks, the HSE chief executive has warned.

The arrival of the Omicron variant will pose a “significant challenge” to an already stretched health system, Paul Reid told a briefing on Wednesday.

Mr Reid offered a stark warning, ahead of what he called another “surreal” festive period.

“We are actually heading into January next year with a much higher level of demand on our resources, on our healthcare, across the board.”

He said that 431 people are currently in hospital with the virus, and 102 people in intensive care – nearly five times the number of people in intensive care this time last year.

Last January, he said, was a “very dark period” for all healthcare staff as Covid-19 cases rocketed and hospitals came under severe pressure.

The health chief warned that healthcare workers are “apprehensive, anxious and understandably, probably fearful of what they will head into again in the January period”.

With days to go until Christmas, and tough new restrictions already in place, Mr Reid appealed to people to follow the public health advice.

According to the latest figures, 53% of people in hospital with Covid-19 are not fully vaccinated.

Mr Reid also said that 54% of those in intensive had not been vaccinated.

Dr Tony Holohan, Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, said Omicron cases are surging in the 16 to 34 age group (PA) (PA Archive)
Dr Tony Holohan, Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, said Omicron cases are surging in the 16 to 34 age group (PA) (PA Archive)

While he assured people that the health service would be there if people needed it in the weeks ahead, he stressed that the vast demands on workers and resources could not be ignored.

He paid tribute to HSE staff for their work.

“No words can express the thanks we have for them,” he said.

He also thanked the public for following Covid-19 restrictions.

“If you do want to give many people a really nice gift, that is not just for Christmas, please go and get your booster at the earliest opportunity you can.”

Health officials said that the HSE has increased vaccination capacity to 300,000 jabs a week, while also promising to scale up PCR testing amid ongoing pressure on the system.

Mr Reid told the briefing: “If we see the level and volume of presentation of cases, there is a level of constraint at a point in time.”

He said that the HSE will be relying on people to remain at home while they wait for a test.

“It is not an elastic resource,” he said of the testing system.

HSE national director Damien McCallion said that positivity rates in community testing are now at over 20%.

HSE chief clinical officer, Dr Colm Henry, also said that the 14-day incidence rate in Ireland currently sits at 1,357 – largely unchanged from last week.

The Omicron variant, he said, is displacing Delta as expected and now makes up two-thirds of all cases recorded in the community.

Mr Henry stressed that vaccines are considerably less effective in terms of protecting against infection with Omicron, without a booster jab.

Chief operations officer Anne O’Connor told the briefing that 25,000 people attended emergency departments last week.

Seven thousand people were admitted from emergency departments in the same period.

“Our admissions are actually running at a high level,” she told the briefing.

“We know that people will need health services,” she said of the Christmas period.

But she asked people not to attend emergency departments unless they really need to and to use other services.

She also said that heading into the Christmas period, the number of healthcare workers out due to a Covid-19 infection or due to being a close contact had fallen by 1,200 over the last two weeks to 3,800.

“That’s really good news,” she said.

Earlier, the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, warned that Covid-19 cases are surging among people aged 16 to 34.

Speaking on Wednesday, he said Ireland will see a significant rise in cases as the Omicron variant continues to spread across the country.

He also indicated that if cases do surge, the testing system will come under strain.

Like previous waves, the virus is spreading first among young people, Dr Holohan said.

“It is most dramatically increasing in those age groups at this point in time,” he said. “That is consistent with what we’re seeing in other European countries.”

He stressed he is not “pointing the finger” at young people, but said it is a fact of the pandemic.

Since Monday, all restaurants, bars and cafes have had to shut their doors at 8pm.

Indoor events have a limited attendance to 50% of capacity or 1,000 people, whichever is lower.

Outdoor events are also limited to half capacity, to a maximum of 5,000 people.

The chief medical officer urged anyone not vaccinated, or waiting to get a booster jab, to come forward.

While we do hope the pattern of severity will be much less than Delta, there is not enough data seen yet in Europe to conclude that

Dr Tony Holohan

“Don’t put off the opportunity to be vaccinated if it comes your way,” Dr Holohan said.

The Government and health officials have said a booster jab should offer more protection against severe disease if someone is infected with Omicron.

On Tuesday, 5,279 cases of the virus were reported by the Department of Health.

Dr Holohan, who has been urging people to reduce their social contacts over Christmas, said health officials are still waiting for more data on the new variant to emerge.

“While we do hope the pattern of severity will be much less than Delta, there is not enough data seen yet in Europe to conclude that,” he told RTE radio.

He also warned that “paradoxically”, a less severe but more transmissible variant would still cause major pressure for the health system.

“Increased transmissibility alone represents substantial risks for us in terms of pressure on our health system,” Dr Holohan said.

The Chief Medical Officer also said he does not believe his recommendations calling for tighter restrictions were leaked last week by the National Public Health Emergency Team.

Asked about the impact leaks have on businesses and the public, he said: “Finding out in that way is no way for anyone to find out.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting