Healthcare workers are bracing for an unprecedented trolley crisis next week, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has warned.
A "perfect storm" of bed shortages, the ongoing flu outbreak, an ageing population and a lack of follow-up facilities for discharged patients is expected to cause chaos at hospitals.
"We're bracing ourselves for what could be a very serious number of weeks," a spokesman for the INMO told the Irish Independent last night.
He said the flu season has peaked but is still expected to last another five weeks.
The number of patients awaiting beds on trolleys at hospitals around the country yesterday was 620, with 433 awaiting treatment in A&E departments and 187 in other wards.
That is a worrying indicator of what lies ahead, the spokesman said.
"Normally Friday's figures are lower compared with the rest of the week. But 620 is exceptionally high," he said.
While the post-Christmas period is always a busy time at A&E departments because of the closure of many GP surgeries over the holidays, the sheer numbers attending A&Es is deeply worrying, he said, adding: "We're operating well above capacity."
The situation is particularly worrying at Cork University Hospital (CUH) where a record 73 patients were waiting on trolleys in the emergency department and other wards at 8am yesterday.
The INMO has called on the HSE to de-escalate the hospital, including cancelling all elective surgeries and refusing to admit any more non-emergency patients and source extra beds from the private and public healthcare sectors next week until the hospital is stabilised.
Otherwise there will be an "inevitable increase in mortality rates", warned Liam Conway, INMO industrial relations officer for the hospital.
"This is a crisis situation," he said. "Our members on the front line are describing the situation as 'horrendous' for both staff and patients."
A CUH spokesman last night said de-escalation of the hospital was taking place in order to ensure patient safety.
He said this was at a time when the hospital is "extremely busy with a very high number of patients being admitted with flu and respiratory illnesses, particularly elderly patients".
CUH is also recruiting staff and trying to source beds outside the hospital for patients not needing acute care.
"Hospitals are providing more services than ever before and we are currently in the peak of the flu season," a HSE spokeswoman said.
She said its count of the number of people on trolleys - based on A&E admissions only - was reduced to 300 at 2pm yesterday from the 433 it counted at 8am.
"The health system is working hard to cope with the increased demand for services and GPs, community services and hospital staff are dealing with very significant surge in workloads," she added.