Hospitals and other health services are facing another week of crippling Covid-related staffing shortages leading to bed closures and delayed access to care.
Several hospital groups reported thousands of staff were absent yesterday as the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital rose to 1,063.
Cancer specialist Professor Seamus O’Reilly of Cork University Hospital and Mercy Hospital said it is a constant juggling act.
“You don’t know who will not be available when you come into work in the morning,” he said.
Around 14,000 health staff across hospitals and community services are absent nationally either through infection, being a close contact, waiting for a test or cocooning.
The impact is also being strongly felt outside of hospitals, with reduced respite services and greater demands on GP out-of-hours surgeries.
The Ireland East Group, with some of the biggest Dublin hospitals, was without 1,400 staff yesterday and it was as high as 1,424 in the South and South West Hospital Group, according to the most up-to-date figures.
A spokeswoman for the Saolta Group in the west and north west said it was down 1,400 staff.
Meanwhile, the six hospitals in the University Hospital Limerick Group were without 554 staff due to Covid yesterday out of a total of 4,974 staff, some 11pc.
Dr Catherine Motherway, intensive care consultant in Limerick, said: “Our intensive care units are open and managing.”
She added that staff were being redeployed to different hospitals in the group and they were also managing to do their emergency theatre workload.
She said the milder impact of Omicron so far appeared to be promising, but Covid patients admitted to intensive care may need to be there for months.
“We will wait and see what happens,” she added.
A spokesman for St James’s Hospital in Dublin, the largest in the country, said it was without 246 staff yesterday.
He said the rate of absences due to Covid-19 “changes on a day to day basis”.
The lack of staff due to Covid-19 is also affecting outpatient clinics in some hospitals, home support and day services, while also slowing the discharge of some patients from wards.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is expected to look at the isolation period for people with confirmed Covid-19 and close contacts when it meets later this month.
Nphet will look at the latest guidance from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and how it could be applied here with various sectors, not just the health service, under extreme pressure due to staff absences resulting from Covid-19.
Currently if a HSE worker is a close contact of someone with Covid-19 and if they are fully vaccinated and boosted, they are advised to restrict their movements for five days, and do three antigen tests over five days.
However, this can be ended, subject to assessment, to allow them to return to work if they have a not-detected antigen or PCR test result and report no symptoms of Covid-19.
Nphet is expected to look further to consider if the isolation period for people with the virus should be shortened.
But any decision on this needs to be carefully weighed and will need to be taken after valid evidence, otherwise there is the risk of escalating the spread of Omicron.
Meanwhile, as the virus continues to impact non-Covid care, Mark Lawler, professor of digital health at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “While Covid-19 exposed significant gaps in our healthcare systems, the overall impacts of Covid-19 on cancer care delivery across European countries is as yet unknown.”
He and his team developed a user-friendly data tool that will help to assess challenges and inequalities in cancer care delivery in EU countries.