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HSE chief says 4,400 healthcare staff out due to Covid as hospitals put on war footing with surgeries cancelled

HSE chief issues a call to arms in letter to hospital managers that urges them to prioritise Covid care


HSE director Paul Reid (Michelle Devane/PA)

HSE director Paul Reid (Michelle Devane/PA)

HSE director Paul Reid (Michelle Devane/PA)

HSE CEO Paul Reid has confirmed there are currently 4,400 healthcare staff out of work because they are either Covid-19 positive or have been deemed as symptomatic close contacts.

Mr Reid said that despite hiring 11,000 nurses in the last, staff shortages remain a key issue for the health service.

It comes as healthcare unions are insisting that their members not be excluded from the new Government derogation which requires people to restrict their movements for five days if a member of their household tests positive for Covid-19.

Speaking on RTE’s Morning Ireland, Mr Reid said the health service would engage with unions to address their concerns.

“We are working through that [new guidance] with ourselves, the CMO and indeed with NPHET (National Public Health Emergency Team) in terms of the policy approach for that in terms of how we would apply a derogation on a policy perspective in relation to this. We will talk to the trade unions; we will address their concerns” he said.

However, he argued that the situation is less serious than it was prior to the vaccine roll-out and added that the booster campaign will provide further protection for staff.

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“What is different now, is we do have a fully vaccinated workforce primarily. Secondly, we are obviously working through right now a very significant booster campaign for all of our healthcare workers, so it does put us in a stronger position, he said.

“But equally if our healthcare workers are symptomatic, we would be only seeking a derogation where people are asymptomatic and we would be putting certain controls in place for the workforce such as temperature checks etcetera,” he added.

Last night hospitals were put on war footing for the next two weeks amid fears the Covid-19 surge risks “unthinkable” intensive care decisions for the most seriously ill patients.

HSE chief Paul Reid issued a call to arms yesterday in a letter to hospital managers – but it will mean the cancellation of hundreds of surgeries among waiting list patients.

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It comes amid concerns that up to half of the people booked for Covid-19 booster shots are “no-shows” in some vaccination centres despite waning immunity and vulnerability to infection.

Mr Reid said struggling hospitals, particularly the largest, should prioritise Covid-19 care and urgent time-sensitive non-Covid patients.

They should also maximise all available capacity inside and outside hospital and report on the additional surge intensive care beds which can be created within the next seven to 10 days.

“This may necessitate curtailing all other activity to facilitate redeployment of staff to critical care areas.”

He said intensive care doctors told him they were already facing increasing difficulties in meeting the needs of patients who required specialist high-dependency care.

“The consequences of such an occurrence although unthinkable, are also well understood by each of you.”

It comes as another 4,650 new cases of the virus were reported yesterday. There were 643 Covid-19 patients in hospital, of whom 118 were in intensive care.

Chief medical officer Tony Holohan said that one in six people in Ireland experienced a cough, sore throat, high temperature or other flu-like symptoms last week.

Mr Reid said the booster appointment no-shows – which could be down to people feeling secure with their first course of vaccine – meant the drive to cut down on infected patients ending up in hospital was more difficult.

Donegal GP Dr Denis McCauley, of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), said he did not think it was due to apathy but the public needed to be reminded boosters were among a range of key measures to protect people at risk of infection and get the country out of the current crisis..

Mr Reid said unvaccinated patients were occupying around one in five intensive care beds.

The HSE plans to send more non-Covid public patients to private hospitals and increase the number of beds used per week from around 1,100 to nearly 3,000 as part of its safety net deal.

Anne O’Connor, HSE chief operations officer, said a typical larger hospital would have 100 planned inpatient and day case surgeries and procedures a day, including chemotherapy.

If all elective activity was cancelled, except for cancer and time-critical cases, there would be a 65pc cut in activity.

Other hidden difficulties include therapy services, including physiotherapy and occupational therapy provided in the community, which are suffering and are operating at around 53pc less than a year ago.

She said there were 1,721 surgeries cancelled from mid- September to the first week in November but that was an underestimate because it did not take account of hospitals deciding to reduce bookings in advance due to pressures.

Around 54pc of Covid-19 patients in intensive care are not vaccinated, 1pc are partly vaccinated and 45pc are fully vaccinated.

The HSE’s Covid-19 testing service is under record pressure and in the last seven days they tested around 200,000 lab samples.

It is now buying in some services from private testing companies based in airports and members of the army are also now involved in swabbing.

Meanwhile, Mr Reid has confirmed that work is continuing to scale up capacity in the country’s testing system, as the numbers presenting for tests continues to rise.

Despite recent reports that individuals have been turned away from testing centres because the centres are too busy, Mr Reid said over the past seven days 82pc of people received a PCR test within 24-hours.

“From midnight last night, for the last seven days we have now lab tested almost 200,000 tests – doubled that capacity in a very short period of time. 82pc of people who wanted a swabbing got it in less than 24-hours,” he said.

“What I would say to the public, if you are symptomatic, go to our sites and try to book. We are prioritising referrals from GPs, we are prioritising symptomatic people. A significant proportion of people are coming forward now as symptomatic and we are prioritising those.

“Do continuously look at ours sites bookings because during the course of the day we do release some appointments that we reserved for GPs and may not be utilised,” he added.

Mr Reid said the current demand for testing could not be “forecast” and confirmed that addition test centres are being rolled-out to meet the challenges.

Damien McCallion, who oversees vaccination, said he expected the 161,000 over-80s to have had their booster shots this month.

The 336,000-strong cohort of people aged 70 to 79 will have received booster shots by the end of this month.

However, many of the 60-69 age group will still not be vaccinated at the end of December because of the delay in giving them a second dose of AstraZeneca vaccine and the need for at least a five- month gap before they get the booster.

He said the aim is to have the majority of this group either vaccinated or “given an appointment” by the end of December.

The HSE has lost a lot of staff due to Covid-19-related issues in recent weeks.

Mr Reid said the plan is to give healthcare workers a derogation from the new Government measures which requires fully vaccinated household contacts of a confirmed case with no symptoms to stay at home for five days and take antigen tests.

Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland

Evidence of the impact of booster shots so far is that cases in the over-85s accounted for just 0.4pc of cases of the virus in the last two weeks.

People aged 65 to 74 made up nearly one in five hospitalisations.

Cases of the virus in children aged under 18 years made up more than a quarter of infections in the last fortnight.

There are 336,000 people in their 70s and 130,500 of these have got a booster so far. Of 161,000 in their 80s, 132,200 have had booster shots.

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