Head of the Health Service Executive Paul Reid has warned that early this week the number of people with Covid-19 in hospital is likely to be "double" what it was at the peak of last year, which was 881.

It comes as the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital has more than quadrupled in the last two weeks.

"Our concern is the numbers, the rising trend" he told RTÉ's This Week while also saying he also does not want people to feel powerless.

"The actions people take today will help us in the coming days and weeks."

On a more optimistic note, he said the HSE anticipates the arrival of a million vaccines a month and that is what they are mobilising to do.

"This week alone we plan to do over 35,000 vaccinations and we will exceed that by today, I am happy to say."

He said they will complete the first round of vaccinations across nursing homes over the next two weeks instead of the next three.

Mr Reid said they country is committed to taking in 110,000 of the Moderna vaccine in the first quarter of this year, while describing the Astra Zeneca vaccine as the game changer as it is easier to transport and store.

He said the HSE would expect much higher volumes of that.

In a bid to reassure people, Mr Reid said we have not entered a surge capacity in hospitals and there are 37 vacant ICU beds and 11 paediatric beds available nationwide.

Mr Reid also outlined the increase in ICU beds that has happened since the start of the pandemic.

"What we have in terms of full capacity is 286. At the start of the surge it was 255."

He said a further 16 will bring that number to over 300 beds.

He said while elective care is being paused in terms of day cases, care for health issues that are urgent - such as cancer and cardiac - continue and emergency services are operating.

Regarding the deal struck with the private hospitals to provide more capacity, he said all hospitals except the Beacon, who they are continuing discussions with this weekend, have activated a lot of support. 

He said it will allow for just over 600 beds in addition to the current numbers and that process has been "triggered" already with private hospitals taking some urgent non-Covid patients already.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

The Department of Health was today notified of eight further deaths of people with Covid-19 and 6,888 new cases.

There has now been a total of 2,344 Covid-19 related deaths in Ireland and 147,613 confirmed cases.

The number of people in ICU has risen to 125, up six from yesterday. There has also been 100 additional hospitalisations in the past 24 hours.

Latest coronavirus stories

People are also being warned about the high rates of transmission, as the 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 is now at 1,291.

As of 8pm yesterday, Cork University Hospital had the highest number of Covid-19 patients in the country with 126. 

It is one of three hospitals with more than 100 patients with the coronavirus, along with Beaumont Hospital in Dublin with 111, and University Hospital Limerick with 109. 

The latest data from the HSE shows that 27 hospitals around the country are dealing with Covid-19 positive patients.

St James's Hospital in Dublin was dealing with the highest number of patients in intensive care at 13, followed by Beaumont with 12, and University Hospital in Limerick with 10. 

The latest data indicates there are 37 adult public critical care beds available, as of 6.30pm yesterday. 

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the Department of Health there has confirmed 17 further coronavirus deaths today. Another 1,112 positive cases have also been identified.

Significant number of staff currently out of work because of Covid-19

Chief Clinical Officer at the HSE Dr Colm Henry has said the fear is not what is happening today but what will happen if the figures continue to rise.

Speaking on RTÉ's Brendan O'Connor Show, Dr Henry said the worry is that in the next seven to ten days an increase in the figures will mean further pressure on hospitals. 

He described the dramatic impact the virus is having on hospitals and nursing homes with a significant number of staff currently out of work because of Covid-19. 

"This morning we are approaching 600 beds lost from our acute hospital system because of infection prevention control measures, because of staff who are sick due to Covid and because our staff who were close contacts.

"And out there in nursing homes we have over 800 staff who similarly cant go to work because of Covid. So the impact is not just felt in terms of the numbers, it is on the huge secondary level of transmission, the destruction on healthcare and all the impact it has for patients, for staff." (clip saved radioman)

Dr Henry also urged caution in the interpreting of the current Covid-19 figures as testing of contacts has stopped. 

"The number of tests won't be accurate, we know enough from the positivity rates and activity in primary hubs that the disease is widespread and feeding into hospitals and causing secondary transmission in hospitals."

He said that there is still capacity in the hospital system and our intensive care units and they are hoping to conclude the deal with private hospitals today or tomorrow. 

This will increase capacity by up to 600 beds including critical care beds if necessary.

He said that while we cannot change the Covid-19 cases that are already acquired today and yesterday, we can reduce the additional burden on hospitals and the risks too by staying at home.

He warned people that they are not the best judge on whether or not they have the virus and the best actions everyone can take is to stay at home.

Hospitals are 'feeling the pinch'

Meanwhile, critical care consultant at the Mater Hospital and President of the Intensive Care Society Dr Colman O'Loughlin said the number of people in ICU with Covid-19 has not reached the figures from last April, but he suspects that will happen in a few days.

He said they are looking at their "surge plans" which were initially prepared for the first wave of the virus last year.

Also speaking on This Week he said hospitals are feeling the pinch and the "emergency departments are chocablock and the wards are really stretched."

He said decisions about which patients with Covid-19 get the maximum care is not an issue although he said he is not naive to think they might never be faced with this.

"Those decisions have been talked about. We have always had to make decisions about what type of patient would benefit from intensive care or not and that is no different to those with coronavirus."

He said their concerns would be if the numbers become "absolutely overwhelming" and they would reach a situation where the demand outweighs supply for therapies.

"We would be working very, very hard to make sure that doesn't happen" adding that the only group that can change the current situation is the general public by adhering to public health guidelines.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

Responding to reports today that hospitals are being told to conserve oxygen supplies, he said supplies of oxygen to hospitals is not under threat.

"What some hospitals are experiencing is the delivery of oxygen, through its pipelines from the evaporators, is not reliable when the flow of demand by each patient is very high.

He said a lot of work is being done by technical teams monitoring oxygen flow and consumption and most hospitals will be planning where they limit oxygen in the first round of patient care and only escalating it in an emergency situation.

He said some of the pipelines are quite old and the ultimate worry is pipes freezing over, describing it as "doomsday scenario" but added there are multiple ways to prevent that happening. 

"But it is a theoretical concern and certainly more than that has happened at hospitals before so we are concerned. So, it is another thing to be worried about."

On a more optimistic note, he said "70 to 80% who come in with Covid to intensive care are going to leave on their road to recovery". 

His concerns were echoed by Dr Catherine Motherway, who is an Intensive Care Consultant at University Hospital Limerick.

She said: "We know that it (Covid-19) can and it will overwhelm health care systems. It has done so elsewhere, and it is vital that we actually stop it."

Dr Motherway said she worries that scenes from Northern Italy and Spain at the start of the pandemic could be repeated here. 

"Look at London", she said, adding that it has a very advanced health care service and is now in a state of emergency. 

Dr Motherway warned that being on a ventilator is not where anyone wants to end up. 

"I am very happy we have lots and lots of ventilators", she said, but that "we do not wish for people to get sick enough to get on a ventilator". 

She said: "Being on a ventilator in an ICU is not a pleasant process... a critical care admission takes it out of a person".

She said hospitals will have plans in place around oxygen distribution with each site. 

Dr Motherway said: "Oxygen is a potential problem, we knew it could be a problem. 

She said that UHL has almost quadrupled the amount of oxygen it can deliver on-site and has other sites across the region where it can put patients who require oxygen. 

Dr Motherway added she also appreciates the positives, such as the arrival of vaccines and the early signs that the most recent public health measures are beginning to work as the number of close contacts has reduced from an average of five down to three. 

Additional reporting Laura Hogan