There are fresh concerns that an expected wave of the Delta coronavirus variant will come at the cost of scheduled health care.
The HSE expects fewer people to be admitted to hospital this time around as vaccines have rolled out to more than half of the adult population, but says a surge will still severely limit its ability to deliver non-Covid care.
HSE chief operations officer Anne O'Connor said the cancellation of non-Covid appointments once again is a serious situation in itself.
“This is a trade-off, really. So the more people that come into our hospitals with Covid, the less we can do of the other work,” she said.
“That is becoming a very serious situation for us when you look at the length of time we’ve been deferring that.”
Cancelled appointments due to both the pandemic and a recent cyberattack on the health service have contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of patients presenting at emergency departments (EDs) requiring admission.
Some facilities are seeing attendances that would normally be expected in a winter surge, with an emergency medicine consultant saying the Delta variant will add more pressure to already overwhelmed EDs.
Ms O’Conner said: “We’re watching closely and we’ll have to see how it goes in terms of beds. I think a challenge for us really is whether it impacts on the available beds.”
The number of people with Covid-19 in Irish hospitals has dropped to 50 today, after being as high as 60 on Wednesday.
It is happening in younger people, the 20s and 40s
Dr Anthony Breslin, director of public health in the north-west region, said Covid-19 is now affecting younger people who are less likely to be vaccinated.
“We’re hearing anecdotally that with Delta, the infection people are having at home... is more severe than what we were seeing last year, and that’s why I think we will see more people ending up in ED,” he said.
“It is happening in younger people, the 20s and 40s.”
He added: “We’re very much taking the precautionary approach that even if you are vaccinated, you still have to be careful because you could have a minor infection, a minor illness or you could have severe illness if the vaccine hasn’t taken, and we don’t want you to spread it to someone else.”