Senior officials have been told that thousands of infections with the Omicron version of Covid-19 have not been recorded in official figures since the beginning of December.
A meeting of civil servants, political allies and public-health officials heard yesterday that there are likely to have been at least 380,000 cases of the high-infectious strain since early last month, and perhaps as many as 500,000.
This was significantly less than the estimated 220,000 cases of the variant confirmed through the state’s PCR testing system in the same period, the Covid-19 Oversight Group was told.
The testing system has already come under great pressure ahead of Christmas, with many people with COVID-19 symptoms or testing positive antigen struggling to secure appointments.
The high rate of test positivity, which recently ran at around 50 per cent, is seen as a leading indicator that many cases go undetected and that the level of infection far exceeds what the testing system can meet. Yesterday 17,656 more cases were reported.
Admission to ICU
Despite the ongoing surge in infections, sources expressed tentative hope that the record case numbers and rising numbers of COVID-19 treatments in hospital were not being translated into intensive care (ICU) at the same rate as last January’s peak.
Michael Power, Beaumont Hospital’s consultant and clinical chief of health services executive for critical care, said ICU status, with 94 COVID-19 patients nationally, was stable. “If we look at this time last year, we remember that the figures were increasing with a net increase of 20 per day.”
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However, he added that it is “too early to say” what effect Omicron will ultimately have.
Taoiseach Michael Martin said yesterday that the “bulk” of ICU cases were infected with the previously dominant Delta variant.
The national public health emergency team will meet today to consider the impact of the latest wave, and whether changes are needed to close contact isolation requirements.
People are currently asked to stay at home for five to 10 days after coming into contact with a confirmed case, which employers said is causing distress to employees at their businesses. Officials will look into the matter at the request of the government but no policy change is expected this week.
With schools returning from the Christmas break today, principals have warned that many classes may need to stay at home due to unavailability of teachers due to COVID-19 reasons.
An Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) survey of 1,500 schools found that nearly 40 percent were concerned they didn’t have enough staff available to cover absenteeism.
“It’s going to be very challenging,” said Pyrik Clerkin, chief executive of IPPN. “We expect most schools to open but may have to rely on special education teachers or students to stay open.”
Under the new guidance issued by the Department of Education, schools are advised to prioritize in-person teaching in case teaching staff is unavailable for junior and living certificate students and students with special needs.
Several schools informed parents last evening that classes would not reopen until next week, or would be conducted on alternate days for some time.
Education Minister Norma Foley acknowledged that the coming days and weeks “will not be without their challenges”, but the pandemic had shown that children are best served by individualized learning.
She said measures to reduce risk in schools – such as the use of medical-grade masks – are under review.