Patients have reported spending up to nine days on trolleys and having to sleep on floors,
It came as Health Minister Stephen Donnelly last night admitted things were “likely to get worse”.
The number of people waiting on a hospital bed hit a record high yesterday, with 931 patients across the country lying on trolleys.
Medical experts say this number is likely to increase as elective procedures resume after Christmas, while some fear surgeries may be delayed or cancelled as a result.
University Hospital Limerick, which had 97 patients waiting on a bed yesterday, said only urgent elective surgeries will go ahead in the coming days.
Patients have reported spending up to nine days on trolleys and having to sleep on floors, while one woman who was kicked in the face by a horse told the Irish Independent she was waiting 14 hours just to get an X-ray.
On RTÉ’s Liveline, a mother whose 14-year-old son went into cardiac arrest last Thursday was told by emergency services they would have to wait 45 minutes for an ambulance. She had to call the gardaí to give her an emergency escort to the hospital.
There are also concerns that the number of resignations by staff will rise in the coming weeks due to burnout.
Dr Mick Molloy, emergency department consultant and member of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) consultant committee, said the crisis was the direct result of failures to invest in bed capacity, infrastructure and staff.
“It’s leading to massive burnout, which is another crisis going to unload very shortly as the resignations pile up,” he said.
“We are hearing it’s just a temporary issue, but we are massively over the admission capacities and with no sense of respite at all, it’s going to lead to more unnecessary deaths in hospitals.
“It’s incredibly frustrating as people are talking about emergency departments being the source of the problem, but we are the canary in the coal mine. The hospital capacity problem doesn’t show up until you are so over capacity that people end up in the emergency department because they can’t access assessments or care elsewhere.”
He also criticised the HSE’s figures, which are lower than those of nursing union the INMO, stating hospitals are being advised not to include people on wards waiting for admission to a bed.
The HSE only includes those waiting in emergency departments. At 8am yesterday, it said there were 772 waiting on trolleys nationally, with 253 waiting more than 24 hours.
The HSE said it is now planning to increase the use of private hospital beds and nursing homes to address the issue.
A spokesperson said funding has been provided for 185 private beds and arrangements are being put in place to increase this further.
However, consultants say this will not address the issue in rural areas where there are no private hospitals nearby.
Communications officer for the Irish Association of Emergency Medicine Dr Fergal Hickey said the HSE’s decision to ask people to avoid emergency departments where possible “was not the right thing to do as a lot of people do not have a GP or cannot access a GP, while injury units are not suitable for people with respiratory issues”.
“We cannot deal with demand without having hospital beds to admit those people to,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter what tricking around they do, all they are doing is moving deck chairs on the Titanic when the Titanic is sinking.”
He added: “At some point in the future, there will be a public inquiry into this. Who knew what, when they knew it and why they didn’t do anything.”
Hospitals in Cork, Galway and Dublin are significantly overcrowded.
University Hospital Cork had 74 patients waiting on a bed, St Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin had 56, while Letterkenny University Hospital and University Hospital Galway both had 52.
Meanwhile, HSE chief operations officer Damien McCallion has confirmed representatives from University Hospital Limerick have met with the family of Aoife Johnston (16), who was left on a trolley for up to 16 hours and who died from meningitis at the hospital.
With a large number of respiratory illnesses circulating, the INMO and trade union body ICTU have called for mandatory mask-wearing to be reintroduced in congregated settings.
Last night, Health Minister Mr Donnelly admitted, overcrowding in hospitals is “likely to get worse”.
Speaking at Beaumont Hospital, he said the overcrowding surge is due to a “perfect storm” of Covid, RSV and a very severe wave of the flu, which he said had “absorbed” a lot of the additional capacity put into the system in recent years.
Mr Donnelly said there has been “unprecedented” investment in the health service in recent years but he admitted there was a “permanent deficit” in capacity of the public health system.