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

Paul Reid: Omicron variant will pose ‘significant challenge’ to health system
The HSE chief executive said the country’s health system is already under pressure.

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)

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.”

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.”