The head of the Health Service Executive (HSE) has warned that there could be between 1,500 and 2,000 Covid-19 cases in hospital in a few days' time.
Paul Reid said 3,000 HSE staff were currently isolating after testing positive for the virus or coming into close contact with a confirmed case.
He warned the daily number of positive Covid-19 tests will reach 7,000 in the coming days amid “rampant” transmission levels.
"I think we've run out of adjectives to describe how serious this is," Mr Reid told Newstalk radio.
"The numbers in that trajectory we cannot sustain. We will be taking actions this week to reduce and in most places eliminate non-urgent care across our hospitals. We are literally going back to where we were in March and April."
Mr Reid said that on the Republic’s current trajectory, the total number in hospitals could hit 2,500 this month with between 250 and 430 people in intensive care units (ICU).
He said the HSE is currently meeting the demand “coming at us at an absolutely phenomenal rate”, though case numbers were at a “frightening scale” versus the 200 or so reported each day a month ago.
“We have seen cases (at) almost 5,000 (yesterday) and would expect to see those cases in the next few days reaching 7,000, certainly over 6,000 this evening,” he said.
“Some of the backlog is being washed through but the minimal rate is certainly above a base of 5,000 people. That’s what we are dealing with. This is now rampant in terms of transmission levels.”
Mr Reid said the health service was now prioritising testing people who were symptomatic and it was not possible to test everyone who wanted one due to current levels of demand.
“We have said to those who are close contacts to do exactly what we have always said – to restrict their movements – but we are prioritising our tests for those who are symptomatic,” he said.
“We were looking at one day last week, if we calculate the close contacts that people had, we would have had a demand for over 50,000 (tests). About 52,500 tests to be done on a day, and that’s a scale where you just have to prioritise.”
90 % Covid 19 referrals sent by me from practice 28-31/01 have now been returned as positive cases.
— Amy Morgan (@amymorgangp) January 4, 2021
“The GPs are being swamped equally. They are seeing coming through their referrals to us – they have seen up to 90 per cent testing positive,” Mr Reid added.
“It’s growing at a pace no-one could have projected – 30 per cent positivity rate from our total testing.
“The message to people is that test and trace is no longer our first line of defence, our first line of defence is for the public to really work with us.
“Drastically, radically and urgently reduce contacts. Stay at home.”
“Our data is reflecting what we are seeing coming through – high transmission levels beyond anything forecast. We know for a fact that the community transmission rate will be well above what we are seeing,” Mr Reid added.
It comes as earlier, the HSE chief said the Republic's hospitals cannot manage the current trajectory of its fast-growing Covid-19 outbreak and it is expected that most non-urgent procedures will be cancelled this week.
Until recently Ireland had one of the lowest infection rates in Europe, but the 14-day incidence rate of the virus per 100,000 people has more than quadrupled to 470 in the last two weeks.
Covid-19 hospital admissions are rising by 20 per cent a day, and the number of patients being treated could surpass the first wave peak within a day or two, having reached 744 on Monday. There are 70 patients in ICU.
Public health experts and politicians have said it now looks unlikely that schools will welcome pupils back for in-person learning next week.
A new daily record of 4,962 cases of the virus was confirmed on Sunday, pushing overall infection numbers beyond the 100,000 mark. About 10 per cent of all cases confirmed throughout the 10-month pandemic have been reported in the past three days.