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A worrying jump in Covid cases has ignited fears about how fragile Ireland is as Christmas approaches and hospitals brace for a potential rise in patients afterward.

The daily toll of new cases rose yesterday to 335, an increase of 66 on Wednesday's 269. There were three more Covid-related deaths.

Health chiefs had hoped the figure would be nearer the 100 target after six weeks of lockdown, but the spread of the virus in the country is still at significant levels.

There is concern that hospitals, which traditionally see a surge in patients on trolleys in the new year with respiratory and other complaints, will be left coping with another rush of people infected with Covid over Christmas.

HSE chief Paul Reid said yesterday he was afraid of a lag between infection and admissions to hospital in the early January peak.

"We know there is going to be a lag effect from reduced restrictions whatever they may be. Does that lead to increased community transmission?" he said.

"Right now we are coping but it is fragile and any rapid increase in the community will have an effect on our hospitals."

There were 246 patients with Covid in hospital yesterday, with 35 in intensive care.

Dr Colm Henry, HSE head of clinical care, said the lengths of stay in hospital and in intensive care of Covid patients have fallen due to factors such as greater use of steroids.

They will still spend a considerable time being treated.

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"Once admitted to intensive care, a patient is likely to spend two weeks there and then after they have recovered some time on a ward," he said.

"There are around 17 admissions to hospital every day."

Ireland's 14-day incidence - the total of all those who have fallen ill with Covid in the past fortnight - dropped to 103.9 per 100,000 of population yesterday. The figure is among the lowest in Europe.

Cancer

Several counties including Donegal, Louth, Limerick and Waterford continue to have higher 14-day incidences. Wexford, Leitrim, Kerry, Laois and Galway have low rates.

An HSE briefing yesterday was told that up to 2,000 cases of cancer may have been missed this year as a result of disruption caused by Covid.

There have been only 90pc of the cases of lung, breast and prostate cancer diagnosed at rapid-access clinics this year compared to last.

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