A total of 1,543 people have died due to Covid-19 in nursing homes, with 369 of those having occurred in the month of January.

There was a five-fold increase in the number of outbreaks in nursing homes from mid-December to the end of January.

The number jumped from 34 to 193 in that time. However, 40% of nursing homes remained free of Covid-19.

Representatives from the Health Service Executive, Department of Health and Nursing Homes Ireland, were before the Oireachtas Committee on Health this morning.

Sinn Féin's Health Spokesperson, David Cullinane, was told that there were 4,300 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in nursing homes during the month of January. Staff accounted for 37% of those cases. 

David Cullinane said that he was contacted by families who said that they can't get through on the telephone to loved ones and they can't get information.

He said that in some cases people were only granted access to their loved ones when the patient wasn't aware of their presence.

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Sandra Touhy, the HSE's Head of Operations for Older Persons Services, said that she was acutely aware of the issue and it has been raised with Covid Response Teams to see how communication can be improved.

Nursing Homes Ireland expressed disappointment that in mid-January just 10% of the initial 77,000 vaccinations administered were within nursing homes.

CEO Tadgh Daly said that it was important these settings are priority number one. 

Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall asked that the HSE write to the committee with up-to-date figures on how many nursing home residents and staff are yet to receive their first vaccines.

People Before Profit's Gino Kenny told members that he believed a public inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on nursing homes will be necessary when the pandemic ends. 

The HSE's Yvonne O'Neill, National Director Community Operations, told the Oireachtas Health Committee that 3,000 bed nights were provided to nursing home staff in the week ending 21 January. 

These nights were offered in cases where staff felt that their home environment could contribute to the spread of Covid-19.

Ms O'Neill was responding to Deputy Colm Burke who asked what measures were implemented to deal with situations where people living in one household could be working in several different nursing homes. 

NIAC recommends AstraZeneca vaccine for over-65s

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee has recommended that the AstraZeneca vaccine can be used for people aged over 65.

It made its recommendation to Chief Medical officer Dr Tony Holohan yesterday evening after meeting earlier.

More than 400,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are due here in the first quarter.

It is expected to be the primary vaccine used by GPs and others to immunise the next priority group of people, those aged 85 years and older.

The vaccine is easier to handle as it does not need to be stored at very cold temperatures.

German authorities recently decided not to use the vaccine in over 65s, having raised questions about its efficacy.

However, the European Medicines Agency approved the vaccine for people aged 18 years and older last week.

The decision here means that Ireland now has three vaccines for use against coronavirus.

Additional reporting Fergal Bowers