The next priority groups should begin receiving their COVID-19 vaccines in April and May, the head of the HSE has said.
Paul Reid also said the Government will have ‘more options’ for reopening society once over-70s are vaccinated by May.
People over 85 are due to start getting their first vaccine doses from today, in the first step of the community rollout of vaccines.
Around 13,500 people in this age cohort will receive the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine this week.
It comes as the vaccination programme continues in care homes - where remaining residents and staff will soon be getting their second doses - and among frontline healthcare workers.
HSE CEO Paul Reid told Newstalk Breakfast a “significant” extra delivery of vaccines is helping health officials get those initial priority groups fully vaccinated.
He said: “We know the committed vaccines we have from the three main suppliers to date so far brings us to about 1.24 million to the end of March… that’s largely a function of some improvement from the AstraZeneca delivery.
“That starts to address the cohort one - around 92,000 people in long-term care facilities, residents and staff. Frontline healthcare workers… there’s about 175,000. And then there’s almost half a million people in the 70+ age cohort. It starts to address all of those.
“After that the next cohort would be healthcare workers not in direct patient contact, and then 65-69 year olds with vulnerable conditions.”
He said work is continuing to ‘further define’ those cohorts which are next in line.
However, he said vaccination among those groups is like to start as we get into April and May.
For now, Mr Reid stressed that the HSE has to keep some of their vaccine stock to ensure there's sufficient supply to get vaccinated people their second dose.
With all over-70s set to have received their first vaccine dose by mid-April and a second-dose by mid-May, Mr Reid said the Government will then have more options for easing restrictions as the most vulnerable populations will have been vaccinated.
He reiterated that supply is the only limitation on the rollout of vaccines, and plans are already in place for the wider community vaccination programme.
He said: “We have plans ready now for 40 vaccination centres, all across the country that will work on 12-hour shift basis. They’re being finalised with the minister shortly, but that’s going to be a really exciting process.
“If you take this week alone, there will be 103 GP locations across the country, where 116 GP practices will come together - a total of 375 GPs will be vaccinating. Along with that, next weekend in DCU in the Helix 125 GPs come together, and they’ll be vaccinating 2,000 of their patients.”
While there has been a significant decrease in COVID-19 hospital numbers over recent weeks, Mr Reid stressed it's still not at ‘any way normal levels’.
He noted over 900 patients wouldn't usually be being treated for the same disease in Irish hospitals.
He said: “It is concerning for us… certainly the length of stay we’re seeing is longer, particularly in ICU. We’re seeing sicker people, and sadly we’re seeing higher mortality rates.
“Certainly what [medics] are saying is transmission levels seem to be higher in the community - we can see that from our testing of close contacts.
“There’s about a 22% positivity rate - previously that had been around 10-11%. You would certainly have to draw some conclusions about the variant having a significant impact this time.”