The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital rose above 2,000 for the first time today.

The Department of Health this evening put the number at 1,975 confirmed cases in hospital, saying there had been 102 additional hospitalisations in the past 24 hours. It said there were 200 people with coronavirus in ICU, a rise of five since yesterday.

The Health Service Executive is reporting 2,020 confirmed cases in hospital and 199 in ICU.

The update follows the reporting of eight more Covid-related deaths and 2,121 new virus cases to the Department of Health.

In a tweet, Health Service Executive CEO Paul Reid said the HSE's national critical care surge plans have been activated and health care staff are "working really hard to remain in control".

The HSE said it will look to reintroduce testing for close contacts of Covid-19 cases, once the daily case numbers drop to below 2,000 a day.

Testing of close contacts was paused last month due to high numbers of tests coming through, and to prioritise those with symptoms.

HSE National Lead for Testing and Tracing Niamh O'Beirne said they are "still in surge mode", with high volumes of tests and acute hospitals doing more testing than before.

She said the overall number of GP referrals is starting to come down from a peak of over 26,000 to between 10,000 and 15,000 now. 

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne, Ms O'Beirne said the test and trace system is holding up, with about 98% of people getting an appointment within 24 hours, and the vast majority of those receiving their result within 48 hours.

She said even if a person has no symptoms they can still pass the disease on and they have seen many examples of this. 

She said it is really important that people tell them who their close contacts are, as they maintain contact with them through the 14 days they are required to restrict their movements.

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CMO urges employers to facilitate remote working

The Chief Medical Officer has described the situation in the country's hospitals as "stark" and said people should not go into work this week if they can work from home.

He called on employers to facilitate employees to work remotely.

Dr Tony Holohan said that the levels of infection are such "that your chances of transmitting or getting Covid-19 are very high, and we know that a proportion of those cases will lead to serious illness and mortality".

The intensive care unit at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda has moved to its second stage of a surge plan, where non-Covid patients are being managed in the hospital's coronary care unit. 

Respiratory consultant Dr Ian Counihan said there are currently ten patients in ICU – including eight with Covid-19 and there is capacity for up to 24 ventilated patients. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, he said there is a large group of younger people being admitted with Covid-19 and the hospital has treated people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, some of whom needed oxygen. 

He said that in the last week there has also been an increase in the number of patients aged over 70. 

Recommendation issued over vaccine administration

Meanwhile, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) has considered the deaths of 23 frail, elderly people in Norway following the administration of a Covid-19 vaccine.

In a report, the Norwegian Medicines Agency said "common adverse reactions to mRNA vaccines, such as fever and nausea, may have contributed to a fatal outcome in some frail patients".

The NIAC noted that this did not imply that the vaccine caused the deaths.

It said vaccination offers the best opportunity to protect people in residential care, but added that assessment of risk should be carried out in certain patients to take account of the timescale of the response to the vaccine.

The NIAC said it is not appropriate to vaccinate people if their expected duration of life is less than the length it takes for the vaccine to take effect.

In an email to clinicians, seen by RTÉ News, HSE Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry said the NIAC has reviewed the available information and has advised that "the vaccination roll-out should continue as planned".

The HSE said in a statement last night that to date, over ten million Covid-19 vaccines have now been distributed globally.

It said: "It is important to note that fatalities will occur from natural causes or background illnesses, and will continue to do so, during any vaccination campaign."

Additional reporting Fergal Bowers, Sinead Crowley