Unvaccinated people are "eight times more likely to enter an ICU" with COVID-19 than vaccinated people, HSE CEO Paul Reid has said.
He says it's inevitable that COVID-19 is "here with us for some time", and the aim is for elective surgeries to continue this winter despite the surge in cases.
The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in hospitals remains high, with 470 patients with the virus in Irish hospitals as of 8pm last night.
There are 101 patients with the virus in ICU, with officials saying 58% of people in intensive care are not fully vaccinated.
While the hospital numbers dropped slightly yesterday, Mr Reid told Newstalk Breakfast they're likely to stay around 500 and "most likely grow" over the coming weeks.
He said there's “significant pressure” on hospitals - not just from COVID, but also RSV and early indicators of flu.
He said: “Inevitably with COVID, it’s here with us for some time - there will be hospitalisations, there will sadly be ICU [admissions], and even more sadly there will be mortalities.
“There’s much debate if we just increase ICU beds it will be better… but that’s not really true.
"There’s a level to which you can increase your ICU capacity, and still have it constrained by COVID.
“Any one number of COVID has a disproportionate impact on hospitals. When we say 500 people in hospital, the impact is significantly more than 500 people in hospital - we end up having to close some wards and isolate some individuals.”
However, he noted health officials want to create awareness and not anxiety about the rise in COVID-19 cases.
Mr Reid said the health service has to make "clinical judgements" based on the current impact of the virus on hospitals.
He said the HSE hasn't had to halt elective care across the board amid the current surge, but several individual hospitals across the country have had to do so.
He said: “What we’re aiming to do as we face into this winter is continue to the extent we can elective care… and deal with some of the non-COVID issues we’re seeing coming through.
“We do have to take stock of the benefits we’ve seen from the vaccination programme.
"We’re seeing hospitals across Europe - particularly in eastern Europe, such as Romania and Hungary - being absolutely overwhelmed because they have a low level of vaccination take-up.”
Vaccination and boosters
The HSE CEO said there is "continued and increasing" uptake of vaccines recently, with around 2,500 people registering per day.
Uptake has also increased among pregnant women and vulnerable groups.
Mr Reid said: “If you are not vaccinated, you’re eight times more likely to enter an ICU than if you are vaccinated.
"If you are fully vaccinated, your chances of contracting long COVID is 50% less. We know it works.”
Walk-in vaccine centres will continue, with Mr Reid saying there are initiatives in place across the Halloween period to boost uptake further.
While 1,800 healthcare workers are currently self-isolating, the HSE boss said that compares to a peak of 6,000 in January - noting "nobody wants to see that again".
Mr Reid said he's very focused on protecting HSE staff from the virus, and says he would "very strongly" support booster shots for healthcare workers.
He said: “One of the most difficult things I’ve done in my career to date… is having to make contact with relatives of healthcare workers who’ve passed away through COVID.
“The medical experts who make decisions on boosters and timing of booster campaigns are NIAC… and indeed it's a policy decision by Government. What I do advocate very strongly is to protect our healthcare workers - and I would like to see them receiving that booster.”