Return to school sparks fear of surge in flu cases
Another hectic week looms for health services and emergency department patients caught in the overcrowding crisis, amid fears the end of the school holidays could lead to a surge in flu cases.
A jump in patient numbers, worsened by rapidly rising numbers of people hit by influenza, continued unabated over the weekend with very high numbers of patients on trolleys desperately waiting for beds to become available.
The reopening of schools today after the holidays is expected to cause a big increase in flu cases in the coming days and weeks.
The HSE reported 330 patients were on trolleys in emergency departments yesterday morning, including four children who were waiting more than nine hours for a bed.
But the overall number of patients on trolleys was significantly higher because those on trolleys in wards were not counted, according to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO).
A top emergency medicine consultant also warned that the Irish hospital system was not able to cope with big surges in patient numbers.
Dr Emily O'Conor, president of the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine, said: "What we don't have in the Irish health care system is any surge capacity.
"I was criticised by some of my colleagues for saying that emergency departments are working at 100pc capacity because we are actually working at 200pc and 300pc capacity all year round.
"But when any surge occurs, be it influenza, there is no ability for the system to open up extra capacity.
"We can't cope with any surge in the system. A surge is happening at the moment with flu," said Dr O'Conor, an emergency medicine consultant at Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown, Dublin.
Speaking about a further increase in people getting the flu with the reopening of schools today, she said: "The concerns of my paediatric emergency medicine colleagues would be that influenza doesn't really hit our paediatric population until the schools go back.
"It's been a very challenging week. And this coming week there are always going to be peaks in attendances on Mondays and Tuesdays.
"Even though most scheduled activity has been cancelled, and that's not good for patient care, we recognise it's very frustrating for patients on waiting lists, but we are facing into another challenging week now."
She welcomed Health Minister Simon Harris's comments on providing more beds.
"In the short term, we need acute beds brought into the system in the next year. In the longer term, we as a country are going to have to invest in large numbers of acute beds," she said.
On the shortage of life-support and critical care beds, she said: "As the winter goes on and respiratory distress affects more and more people, difficult decisions have to be made in emergency departments all around the country about who is prioritised for those beds."
INMO president Phil Ni Sheaghdha warned that if children have flu and they go to school, they pass it on.
"When those children go home, adults are likely to get it as well," she said.
"It's good advice that, if there are symptoms, don't send your children to school."
Ms Sheaghdha said that nurses were crying with stress in emergency wards and that there were still 3,000 fewer nurses in the system compared to a decade ago.
Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne called for the flu vaccine to be provided free of charge to teachers and school staff.