The chief executive of the Saolta University Health Care group, which runs the local public hospitals, warned this week that the country is heading towards a fourth wave of Covid-19 with case numbers rising and expected to increase further in the coming weeks.
Tony Canavan said while the number of people hospitalised locally is low, he is concerned that these figures are changing.
He did not believe this predicted fourth wave could be halted but stated that people had the power to influence the height of its peak by taking the correct action, such as adhering to public health guidelines and getting vaccinated.
Speaking to this newspaper, he said that with emergency departments already very busy, a fourth wave of the coronavirus infection would put even greater pressure on hospital services than that experienced during the third wave.
There were 17 Covid-19 patients in the Saolta group’s hospitals in the west and north-west on Tuesday, a day in which there were 62 people hospitalised nationally with the virus. The local figures were higher than those recorded a fortnight ago but lower than last week’s numbers (20 ).
While there were no Covid-19 patients at University Hospital Galway, Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe, or Roscommon University Hospital on Tuesday, there were three at Mayo University Hospital. On one day last week there were three Covid-19 patients at both UHG and Portiuncula Hospitals.
While all the intensive care unit departments are busy, they are not under any pressure from Covid-19 patients, according to Mr Canavan.
He said the hospital group is watching the changing coronavirus numbers “very closely”. “The numbers are not very high but it is the fact that they are changing that is my concern. [Hospital] sites that did not have Covid-19 previously now have some cases, all of our sites have had numbers coming up. In Galway [UHG] the numbers went from zero to three last week as did Portiuncula.
“We can see nationally that the numbers are starting to rise. On Monday, there were 600 cases across the country. It was three months ago since we had that high number of cases previously.
“What we do know is that the number of cases are rising and we expect that will continue. The question is will more people become sick again and die? We don’t have the answer to that. Our job is to prepare for increased hospitalisations.”
'A different and more difficult situation'
However, the Saolta boss said the health service would be facing into a different and more difficult situation now than that experienced during the previous waves of infection. “If we were to go into a new situation [the fourth wave] it would be a very different set of circumstances [than in the earlier phases of the pandemic] and it would require very careful and detailed planning to get the balance right. For example, a decision to cancel electives [scheduled procedures] would carry much greater consequences for patients now due to the backlog than 15 months ago.”
Mr Canavan outlined that more than 250 people are attending UHG’s emergency department most days. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are its busiest days. Portiuncula University Hospital is treating 90 to 100 people at its A&E department each day. “There were 100 on several days, which relative to its size, is very, very busy.”
He attributed the increasing ED attendances both to the fact that people who postponed seeking hospital attention during the third wave of Covid-19, can no longer delay it, and the impact of the cyber attack on the HSE’s IT system. It interrupted GP access to various diagnostic tests such as X-rays and laboratory tests.
He stressed we were “certainly on the upward curve of the fourth wave” of the Covid-19 infection. “The number of cases has started to rise and we will see them rise further over the coming weeks. What we don’t know about this wave is the level of illness it will bring. If it results in significant numbers admitted to hospital that will have a very significant impact on the hospitals. It will put them under immense pressure. Our hospitals are [currently] operating at nearly full capacity, on some days they are operating beyond full capacity. A fourth wave would put even more pressure than the third wave.”