Health workers who are deemed close contacts of a positive Covid-19 case but who have received a negative test have been called back to work in the health service.

Health Service Executive Chief Operations Officer Anne O'Connor said these close contacts were being monitored while at work by occupational health experts and having their temperature checked twice a day. 

She said the decision was made due to the shortage of healthcare workers.

It comes as pressure on the acute hospital system from Covid-19 continues to increase, with 172 patients now in intensive care.

Cork University Hospital is caring for 142 patients with Covid-19. There are 130 at University Hospital Limerick and 124 at Galway University Hospital. St Vincent's University Hospital in Dublin is caring for 119 patients with the virus.

The number of patients with confirmed Covid-19 in hospitals has increased to 1,750.

There are 24 adult intensive care unit beds free in the public hospital system, according to the HSE. Fourteen acute hospitals are listed as having no ICU beds available.

The other adult hospitals have a maximum of between one to three ICU beds free each.

Some surge capacity and capacity in private hospitals is available.

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Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Ms O'Connor said 14 hospitals are dealing with more than 50 cases of Covid-19 in patients and six of those are dealing with more than 100. 

She said there are "in excess of 7,000 people" in the healthcare, nursing home and community services sectors who are unable to work for various reasons, including being Covid positive or unable to access childcare. 


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For staff who do not have symptoms but are close contacts of confirmed cases, she said there is "a particular process" where they are monitored by occupational health and are able to return to work.

"And we have had to do that," Ms O'Connor said.

"You'll know from the weekend that we had to put a call out to staff to come into work at Letterkenny because we were under such pressure, and I would see that happening in other sites."

She said the reality is that the demand is "so high" that staff are needed at work. 

Given the level of absenteeism, she said, it is becoming "very difficult across the board", not just in hospitals but in nursing homes also. 

Ms O'Connor said staff are being tested before returning to work and are monitored closely.

Meanwhile, the HSE's National Director of Acute Operations has warned that the intensive care figure could increase to 300 by early next week.

Liam Woods said the demand on ICUs will exceed supply, but it depends on the trajectory of the virus.

He said there are plans to expand capacity, new ICU beds have been opened, and private hospitals are already being used for patients. 

Case numbers in the community have begun to decline and 3,569 cases were reported this evening, down from almost 5,000 cases reported on Monday.

The Department of Health also reported 63 deaths due to Covid-19, with five of those occurring in November and one in December.

There has been a notable reduction in coronavirus outbreaks in private homes, according to the latest figures, although the overall number of outbreaks has increased in the last week.

Latest figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre show there were 52 outbreaks in nursing homes in the last week, and 49 in other residential institutions.

There were also 26 workplace outbreaks reported last week, the highest number in seven weeks.

The HSE has said it will be publishing the reports on vaccination uptake.  

It said that as the programme has just started, the data is being collated and validated and it will be reported and published by the HSE at a later date.  

Currently the vaccines administered data is being reported on a weekly basis at the HSE Covid-19 media briefing every Thursday. 

Additional reporting Fergal Bowers