Fears are growing that January will bring a grim death toll from coronavirus as 46 Covid-19 related fatalities were reported yesterday while hospitals struggled with a rising tide of patients struck by the disease.
Hospitals are having to convert more wards to provide temporary intensive-care beds as Covid-19 admissions reached another milestone of 1,692.
The number of patients in intensive care rose to 158, surpassing the peak of 155 in spring.
It comes as the number of people newly diagnosed with the virus fell to 3,098, sparking hopes that the surge is levelling off at last and that lockdown measures are having an impact.
All but two of the Covid-19 related deaths occurred in January with the others happening in December, highlighting the deadly impact the virus is having once again, predominantly in older age groups.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said: "Unfortunately we are seeing the effect of the recent surge of infections reflected in the increased mortality we are reporting.
"Unfortunately, due to the unsustainably high level of Covid-19 infection we have experienced as a country over the past few weeks, sadly these figures are likely to continue for the next period of time.
"What we can do today, out of respect for those who have lost their lives and those currently in hospital or ICU - and those caring for them - is to hold firm and stay home."
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn pointed out that "at least one in three patients admitted to hospital or critical care in January have been under the age of 65 years.
"This clearly demonstrates that Covid-19 affects us all, regardless of age or underlying condition.
"It highlights the need for us all to protect one another by staying at home.
"Not only will you keep yourself and your loved ones safe, but also help avoid more preventable Covid-19 admissions to our currently struggling healthcare system."
Of the new cases reported yesterday, 604 were in Galway, 574 in Dublin, 466 in Mayo, 187 in Cork and 138 in Limerick.
Dr Brian Kinirons, consultant in anaesthesia and intensive care at University Hospital Galway said: "We are seeing a diverse group in intensive care.
"Certainly there are younger patients. Initially many of our patients would be in their 60s, 70s or older. We have patients in their 80s.
"But we have patients who are a lot younger and in their 50s. The message is that youth does not necessarily protect you."
He said the more underlying illnesses a patient has the greater their risk of mortality.
"We are seeing a change in the profile of the patients and the transmissability of the virus is remarkable this time."
He said the hospital has effectively had to be given over to the medical care of Covid-19 patients.
"Six wards are now dedicated to Covid-19 patients," he added, paying tribute to his colleagues for their dedication.
The forecast is that there could be between 2,000 to 2,500 Covid-19 patients in hospital nationally in up to two weeks' time and 200 to 400 patients needing intensive care.
Meanwhile, new figures show how congregated settings like nursing homes are bearing the brunt again of the surge in the virus.
There were 52 outbreaks in nursing homes last week, up from 30 the previous week.
Figures show 49 outbreaks in residential institutions, an increase of 39 from the previous week.
Many nursing homes are hoping vaccines will come in time before another dangerous spread.
It comes as six residents at Droimnín Nursing Home in Stradbally, Co Laois, died in the past week after contracting Covid-19, just days before they were due to receive their first dose of the vaccine.
The outbreak led to 52 of the 65 residents testing positive for the virus, with 33 of the 75 staff also contracting the disease.
The first doses of vaccine were due to be given to residents of Droimnín on January 19 but this has had to be postponed as a protective measure, given the latest surge in Covid cases.