variant spreading | 

New blow to Christmas plans with five new cases of Omicron in Ireland

Hundreds queueing for booster jab at vaccine centres are turned away.

Members of the public queue outside a drop-in vaccination centre at University College Dublin on Thursday, December 9. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

Eilish O’Regan

Christmas celebrations have been dealt a blow following the detection of five more cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, bringing the total number confirmed to six.

Other probable cases of this form of coronavirus, which it is feared spreads more easily than the Delta variant, are also under investigation.

But experts warned last night the true scale of the Omicron variant is likely greater and it may already have a foothold here.

It comes as the HSE is under pressure to avoid a repeat of yesterday’s scenes of crowds of people seeking the Covid-19 booster vaccine at a number of vaccination centres yesterday.

The opening up of booster shots to people in their 50s led to hundreds being turned away from a vaccination centre at UCD in Dublin yesterday after they had queued for hours in the biting cold.

A walk-in clinic in Croke Park also shut down despite queues of people hoping to get the booster shot.

Across the country there were delays, including a three- hour wait at Punchestown vaccination centre in Kildare, and waits of over 90 minutes in places including Limerick and Ennis.

The strains on vaccination booster shot centres comes amid evidence of the spread of Omicron which has been found in a number of counties, including Dublin and Meath.

It could lead to stricter calls on families to cut down on socialising – below the ‘four households’ rule this Christmas – when the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) meets next week. This will particularly affect those who have not received a booster shot.

Kingston Mills, Professor of experimental immunology in Trinity College Dublin, said last night that while “just six cases have been detected, the likelihood is that there is a lot more than that here”.

He said that the number of cases in the UK is doubling every two or so days .

“The inevitability is pretty stark that it will increase over the weeks, “ he said.

He said that the impact could be seen “towards the end of December”.

It comes after the HSE came under pressure to avoid a repeat of scenes at UCD yesterday where a vaccination centre had to turn away hundreds of people queueing for a booster vaccine for hours .

The small UCD centre was overwhelmed with demand after access to the booster jab was opened up to people in their 50s for the first time.

Shortly after it opened at 8am for a two-hour session around 600 people were queueing and the numbers swelled further.

However, it has the capacity to administer only around 100 vaccines per hour. It delivered nearly 400 doses and stayed open for longer but many people were turned away. In response Damien McCallion, who oversees the vaccination roll-out for the HSE, said he believed the use of GPs, pharmacies and HSE vaccination centres allowed good access to people who are eligible for the booster jab.

However, he said he was examining extending the opening times for walk-in clinics although this would have to be aligned with groups such as the medically vulnerable who have appointments.

Vaccine centres currently have around 160,000 staff and the aim is to increase this to around 200,000 at the end of the year.

He insisted there was no ‘IT glitch’ and the system where GPs and pharmacists electronically inform the HSE where someone has been vaccinated – to avoid them getting another appointment – was functioning well. Some pharmacists and GPs said a lag led to some vaccinated people getting two appointments.

Pharmacies administered 30,000 doses last week.

Mr McCallion said from yesterday if people are texted with an appointment they can now indicate if they have had Covid-19 in the last six months and request a postponement.

Around 1.1 million booster and additional doses have been administered. The aim is to have everyone aged in their 60s and 50s either boosted or with an appointment at the end of this month.

It comes as 4,022 new cases of the virus were reported yesterday. There were 530 Covid-19 patients in hospital, including 115 in intensive care – a level described as far too high by HSE chief Paul Reid.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said that although the Omicron variant is new “our early understanding gives us confidence that a booster dose of Covid-19 vaccine will offer good protection against both it and the Delta infection”.

The basic advice remains to reduce contacts, wear a mask, keep social distance, open windows, clean hands and avail of a booster shot if eligible.

“Do no wait until after Christmas to receive a booster dose,” he added.

He said anyone who gets a booster shot this week or next can be confident in the protection it offers as we move close to the festive season.

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