The perfect storm of high levels of Covid-19 and flu could be Ireland’s worst winter nightmare.
he most severe scenario set out in the HSE’s €160m winter plan yesterday suggested 17,000 hospitalisations for Covid and 4,350 for flu through the winter, overwhelming hospitals. In that scenario, there would be 700 patients in intensive care with Covid and 225 with flu.
The most perilous scenario would be for both to surge together and officials yesterday indicated a early flu season might be preferable to a later one.
Trolley gridlock and gruelling waits for a bed are inevitable this winter – it is all about mitigation.
Flu is on the rise, but so far there are no indications it will present a threat beyond that of a typical winter.
A low flu season would still mean 2,900 hospitalisations and 150 in intensive care, according to HSE modelling.
There were 17 patients admitted to hospital with flu last week.
HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said: “This coming winter – the third winter we have with Covid-19 – carries much uncertainty.
“The combination of Covid and seasonal viruses such as influenza has the potential to create much pressure on a healthcare system that has endured almost three years of pandemic pressures.
“Our response has been to create additional much-needed capacity and to diversify access to healthcare and reduce reliance on hospitals.
“While these measures are all necessary and helpful, we can all, at an individual level, reduce the impact of Covid-19 and influenza by getting our winter vaccines as soon as possible. Doing so not only protects us at an individual level, but also helps protect our families and communities.”
Last week, take-up of booster vaccines reached more than 78,000 as updated Omicron jabs become available.
The HSE plan for winter is much of the same formula as previous years, with an emphasis on reducing the numbers coming to hospital. But there are ongoing high levels of emergency department overcrowding, which left hospitals fighting “winter levels” during the summer.
There has been a 5.36pc increase in attendances at emergency departments this year and a rise of 8.2pc in admissions by those over 75, leading to longer stays.
On the plus side, community services are more advanced and 907 extra beds have been opened across acute hospitals in the last two years, with a further 300 due come on stream in the coming months.
However, those numbers are from meeting demand.
Mary Day, who heads the acute hospital division of the HSE, said: “We know that there are further beds required and we are working on plans to develop those additional beds in the short term. We know that we had a particular shortage of intensive care beds in the past and to address that we have opened an extra 68 beds in the last two years.”
There are two key things patients need: hospital beds and hospital consultants.
Dr Rob Landers, president of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association said: “Unfortunately, this winter plan is unlikely to make in-roads in delivering the significant numbers required of both of these resources.”
Edward Matthews, deputy general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), said the inclusion of a hospital-by-hospital allocation is something the union has long called for.
“However, plans and reality are two very different things,” Mr Matthews said.
“The reality is unless we have the staff, announcing additional capacity is futile.
“To speed up the hiring of staff, each hospital should have a greater role in recruitment.”