Around 7,000 new cases of coronavirus are likely to be reported per day over the coming days, the HSE chief executive has warned.
Paul Reid says the current scale of the virus in Ireland is 'frightening', and the health service is now looking at cutting back on non-urgent care in hospitals due to the amount of COVID-19 hospitalisations.
However, he has stressed the health service will be vaccinating people seven days a week to ensure vulnerable populations are protected as quickly as possible - with the latest delivery of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine expected today.
As of last night, there were over 730 COVID-19 patients in Irish hospitals, with 65 people in ICU.
It comes as authorities yesterday reported 4,962 new cases of the virus - by far the highest daily amount seen during the pandemic so far.
Mr Reid told Newstalk Breakfast hospitals are currently coping, but the situation is extremely serious.
He said: “I think we’ve run out of adjectives to describe how serious it is at the moment.
"The trajectory we’re looking at would tell us within January we could be rising to 1,500-2,000 hospitalised cases, and a rise in ICU from anywhere from around 250 to 430. That’s how serious it is.
“I’m saying to everybody - we can stop this, we can turn this around: we have to."
He said elective care will have to be significantly 'wound back', as the country is back in the situation it was in during March and April.
Surge capacity for intensive care has not yet been used, while discussions are ongoing with the private hospital system to allow for use of their facilities if needed.
Testing and tracing
Last week, NPHET confirmed that close contacts of confirmed cases would no longer be tested for the virus if they weren't showing symptoms.
Mr Reid said testing capacity had been built up to over 20,000 tests a day over Christmas, but a point comes where "any system gets overwhelmed".
He said: “We were looking at one day last week - if we calculated close contacts people had - we would have had a demand of over 50,000.
“I can’t state this more clearly: if you are a close contact, you must [still] restrict your movements for 14 days."
Meanwhile, over 3,000 healthcare staff are not at work due to being a close contact of a COVID case or having the virus themselves - and that number is rising.
Mr Reid said he yesterday had a 'very sad' conversation with the daughter of Mariter Tarugo, the 60-year-old healthcare worker who died from the virus over the Christmas period.
He said: “The one thing her daughter asked me to express every time I’m out publicly is for everybody to really take this seriously - that was coming from her, who'd lost her mom in very tragic circumstances."