Doctors and nurses on the ground have warned that the worrying situation unfolding in Irish hospitals is about to get much worse as the true impact of Christmas will only be felt in the coming week.
“I don’t know how we’re going to avoid the situation that we saw in countries like Italy,” said Rachel McNamara, a ward-based doctor at University Hospital Limerick (UHL).
“We are going to be overwhelmed in the next few days as people who picked up Covid over the holidays may only begin to feel the real effects now and we don’t know how the health system is going to cope, so panic is really setting in.
“It doesn’t feel like people have the capacity to take it as seriously this time around and fatigue has really played a factor. I don’t know what to say to warn people that this is coming.”
“People will only come to realise it when they see footage of Ireland in the same position as Italy was in last March, and by then it will be too late.”
The 14-day incidence rate in Limerick is the third highest in the country, with 1,252.4 cases per 100,000 of the population.
Dr McNamara has been working at UHL for the last three years and has “never faced anything like this before”.
The third wave has so far surpassed even her worst fears.
“Things really feel different this time around,” she said.
“It’s a bit lonelier for healthcare workers given that during the first wave the focus was really on protecting the health service and you could see people staying at home, but I think everybody in society has just run out of patience.
“They only have enough compassion and empathy to keep themselves going now.
“Back in March when I would have been driving to work it felt like a post-apocalyptic world.
“When I drove to work this morning, traffic was at an almost normal level.
“The situation is going to get out of control.”
Dealing with families whose loved ones died due to Covid-19 has been one of the most difficult aspects for the Limerick doctor.
“I’m worried people are becoming numb to it and seeing less than 10 deaths as a win. How can that be a win?” she said.
“Behind every death is a heartbroken family.
“The anxiety and stress these people are under because they can’t see their relatives is serious.
“I have never seen the hospital fill up so quickly, it’s filled with sicker people than before.
“At the moment we’re reaching a stage where I’m not sure how much more we can take.
“People have seen family members, friends and relatives who have sailed through the virus and they might have been asymptomatic, and this makes people drop the guard.
“Some people will be unlucky and the more people with underlying conditions that end up being exposed, the more tragedy we’re going to end up with.”
The number of people in the State’s hospitals with Covid-19 surpassed 1,000 for the first time yesterday.
Paul Reid, chief executive of the HSE, described the figure of 1,022 patients as “a sad milestone that nobody wanted to happen”.
Mary Dunne, clinical nurse manager in the emergency department at University Hospital Waterford (UHW), told the Herald her biggest concern is running out of bed space or ventilators.
The Government easing restrictions at Christmas and Waterford reaching the All-Ireland hurling final was something of a perfect storm for the county.
“I was nervous about those events as I expected us to see a surge due to people gathering,” she said.
“There’s plans in place for surges, but we’re worried about what happens if we go beyond the surge expected.”
“Everyday it’s getting busier. Sick leave is also an issue as staff are out with Covid and that makes managing the situation harder.”
Ms Dunne pleaded with members of the public to do their part.
“There’s a lot of Covid in the community and it’s hugely concerning,” she said.
“Your health is your wealth. People are worried about exams, but if you’re not healthy you can’t do your Leaving Cert; you can’t do your job – without your health you have nothing.”
“It’s just for a few weeks so if they would just row in, please God we will get that R number down.”
Meanwhile, thousands of student nurses will be joining colleagues on the frontline in the coming weeks as their college placements begin.
The issue of paying student nurses has been a hot topic since the start of the pandemic, with many working more than 36 hours a week without pay.
A report which recommended paying students €100 each week has been described as an “insult”.
Teighlour Fegan (20), a second-year student who will soon be commuting from Wexford to Dublin for her placement, hit out at the treatment of nurses.
“We, amongst many others are holding up our healthcare system, and all we will receive is a lovely applause from the Government,” she said.
“We’re not important enough to get paid, nor do we do ‘real work’. It was said by mid-January we could have 2,000 people hospitalised with Covid, but this still isn’t enough for the Government to pay student nurses.
“We sacrifice the health of our families and our own to work on the frontline in this pandemic.
“There are so many HSE staff out of work sick with Covid or because they are a close contact, and student nurses have to fill these gaps.
“We’ve been told that an allowance of €100 a week will be made to student nurses and this is so insulting for the work we do and it really shows how worthy we are to our Government.