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Curbs on sale of alcohol next in line as Holohan says it fuels spread

December socialising blamed as R number at record high

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December socialising is being blamed for the rise in R number

December socialising is being blamed for the rise in R number

December socialising is being blamed for the rise in R number

The R number – showing how fast coronavirus is spreading – is at between 2.4 and 3, a Covid-19 briefing last night heard as a further 6,521 cases were confirmed.

Professor Philip Nolan – chair of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group – told the briefing that at no time since the start of the pandemic in March had it exceeded 1.4 or 1.6. Prof Nolan said this was certainly, “at least in part explained by the very high levels of socialisation and social contact” in the last weeks of December.

Meanwhile, curbs on the sale of alcohol by forcing off-licences to cut their opening hours may be the next step in the fight against the Covid-19 crisis after chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan warned it is helping to fuel the spread of the virus.

He welcomed signals that the Government is looking at curtailing off-licence trading hours in the war against the virus. Dr Holohan said “the virus loves alcohol” and it was clear it was causing people to let down their guard, increasing the risk of spreading the virus.

He was speaking as the rapid acceleration in the spread of the virus has left the country facing the fastest rate of growth since March with exceptionally high levels of disease. Another 10 Covid-19 related deaths were reported yesterday along with 6,521 cases, although there are cautious signs cases may have begun to stabilise in recent days and people are reducing their contacts.

The figures from recent days had to be “interpreted cautiously” and it will take time to show if the country was starting to turn the corner.

However, admissions to hospitals will continue to escalate and there were a record 1,043 being treated in wards yesterday with 99 hospitalised in the previous 24 hours. Intensive care units, which are under growing strain, had 96 Covid-19 patients and doctors are increasingly “terrified” they will not be able to provide the level of care needed to every patient who is seriously ill.

HSE clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said the most “optimistic” prediction is that there will be 200 Covid-19 patients in intensive care next week.
Prof Cliona Ni Cheallaigh, an infectious disease consultant in St James’s Hospital, said doctors were “terrified” of finding themselves where they have to choose between patients because of a lack of beds.

There are 286 intensive care beds and the capacity to increase this with temporary beds to 350, but hospitals are facing huge difficulties with absent staff due to the virus. There are 2,500 off work including the specialist nurses and doctors needed to provide this level of care.
Prof Nolan told last night’s briefing that the more infectious strain of the virus is now accounting for around one in four infections and it will make it more difficult to get this third wave under ­control.

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Its threat means everyone needs to work harder to slow the spread and double down on their efforts. It will be next week before there is any firm sign that the spread of the virus may be ­stabilising and optimism is still “very thin”.

He said a pessimistic forecast was that there would be 2,500 to 5,000 cases a day by the end of this month.

The more optimistic possibility was that it could be between 1,100 and 2,900 a day at that stage. Ireland went into lockdown in October when daily cases were around 1,200 which shows the hill that has to be climbed in the first part of the year. He expressed concern about the rate of infection, hospitalisation and risk of death among the over-65s.

Around 11 people a day are dying of Covid-19 related disease and so far this month there have been 41 deaths with 163 in December. Earlier, HSE chief Paul Reid said the rate of growth in Covid patients was a “massive shock” to the hospital system and 400 beds were available yesterday as well as 31 intensive care beds. “We are looking at an extreme situation in our hospitals in the coming days.”

Mr Reid said 15,314 people, mostly healthcare workers, have got the vaccine and 35,000 are expected to get the jab this week. Around 27,300 doses have been distributed.

“We are where we expected to be,” he told a HSE briefing. There are around 1,800 ventilators in hospital.

The briefing was told that there have been 108 open outbreaks since the beginning of January across long-term care facilities and hospitals.

There are currently 79 active outbreaks but there is still no evidence of flu. There are currently around 880 nursing home staff off work due to Covid-19.

The three children’s hospitals in Dublin are having to curtail services due to the Covid-19 crisis and children due to be seen in out-patient clinics will have to undergo virtual or telephone consultations instead. The decision has been made by Children’s Health Ireland (CHI) overseeing the three children’s hospitals at Tallaght, Crumlin, Temple Street and the Paediatric Outpatients and Urgent Care Centre, CHI at Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown.


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