The statistics of the pandemic tell a scientific story, but each number represents a unique human tale too.

"What do you say to your mum when you know you may never see her again?" were the words of just one family impacted by Covid-19.

Over the course of 30 days RTÉ Investigates was provided with exclusive access to Dublin's St James's Hospital, showing for the first time the realities of life and death on Ireland's pandemic frontline.

The series goes behind the scenes of the fight against the coronavirus following the stories of patients, staff and families at what is one of the biggest and busiest hospitals in the country.


Stories from the series

Inside Ireland's Covid Battle
Behind the Mask
Inside One Dublin Hospital's Covid Battle
The last line of defence: Inside St James's ICU
A mirror to society: The ED during Covid
'The burden of death': Covid Inpatients


A nurse on duty in the intensive care unit at St James's

As part of the project, St James's also supplied RTÉ with extensive data sets revealing how the pandemic has transformed activity at the hospital.

The figures show a total of 79 deaths associated with Covid-19 were recorded at St James's by the end of May with the data indicating the crisis reached its height during the first two weeks of April.

In the week beginning 30 March 2020, the Dublin hospital recorded 17 Covid-19 related deaths. The following week, from 6 April, it recorded a total of 22 deaths where patients had tested positive for Covid-19, as well as nine other non-Covid-19 deaths - a total of 31 deaths.

This was the highest number of weekly deaths at the hospital during the first half of 2020 and represents a threefold increase on the same period in April 2019, when there were just ten deaths recorded in the hospital.

In many areas of the hospital, activity slowed down dramatically, as procedures were cancelled or postponed and as people tried to avoid hospital where possible for fear of contracting Covid-19.

In 2020, from the beginning of January to the end of May, there were 7,032 admissions to inpatients at the Dublin hospital, an 18% drop from the 8,551 admissions for the same time last year.

The lowest weekly number of inpatients this year was the week beginning 30 March - two days after a stay-at-home order came into effect - with 218 inpatient admissions. That was down almost 50% from the same time last year when there were 425 admissions. 

In May, the weekly numbers of inpatients increased from the previous month but still hadn't returned to pre-Covid levels of activity. For example, in the week beginning 25 May, there were 321 inpatients. This compared with 417 at the same time in 2019, a year-on-year fall of 23%.  

Of the 2,453 inpatient admissions in March and April this year, 243 – around 10% – were Covid-19 cases.

The ED at St James's Hospital where cubicles have been glassed off to help protect patients

The number of Emergency Department attendances at St James's was also down considerably. From the beginning of January to the end of May, this fell by 17% from the same period last year, from 19,510 in 2019 to 16,168 this year.

The ED at St James's tells a somewhat different story to inpatients: during the early days of the pandemic, attendances fell significantly but increased from mid-April and May. By the end of May, they were similar to pre-Covid levels and close to the corresponding period in 2019.

In the week beginning 16 March, for example, there were 496 attendances at the ED at St James's, down from 981 during the same week in 2019, an almost 50% decrease.

However, for the week starting 25 May, they had increased to 885, which was similar to attendance levels earlier this year, before the pandemic. For the same week in May 2019, there were 913 attendances, representing a year-on-year difference of just 3%.

Dr Geraldine McMahon, a consultant in emergency medicine at St James's, said that some people avoided hospital because they were afraid of contracting Covid. She added that reduced societal activity also accounted for the fall in ED attendances.

"There were layers of reasoning why people didn't present to the Emergency Department as they usually would," she said.

"The country essentially went into full lockdown – there were no pubs, reduced car journeys, and the stress associated with work stopped for many."

This story comes from a new RTÉ Investigates project going behind the scenes of St James's Hospital as it fights against Covid-19.

'Inside Ireland's Covid Battle' watch now on RTÉ Player