Ordinarily, I welcome any opportunity to update the House but today I cannot do so. We are living in extraordinary times and what we ordinarily do is no longer a choice we can freely make.
On this day, World Autism Day, I think in particular of those who most depend on routine in their lives now finding a way to cope with their families in what are very strange and difficult days as they seek to play their part in this national public health emergency. I think of the people who are at home and adjusting to a very different way of living. Like them, I believe democratic accountability can operate at a distance and that there is no reason it cannot do so effectively. Other parliaments around the world are doing so. Yesterday, many members of the Opposition again questioned the HSE remotely at a briefing. Many of them will rightly question the Taoiseach and me in the same way later this afternoon. I will not dwell any longer on this issue. Days in which we do not lead by example are days we should regret.
I express my condolences to the family and friends of all those whose lives have been tragically taken by this terrible virus. It does not just steal lives, it steals from us the very cherished ways in which we grieve. Twenty-two days ago, there was the first death from Covid-19 in Ireland. As of last night, 85 men and women in Ireland had lost their lives to the virus. This should give us a singular focus. We must protect the most vulnerable members of our society.
Earlier this week, the Government moved to strengthen support to people in nursing homes and other long-term residential care settings and people working in or depending on home care. I have reached out to organisations which represent other vulnerable groups, including those living with cancer, addiction or poverty. We are all affected by this crisis but some are more affected and vulnerable than others. Our watchword must be that no one will be left behind. This national effort must be driven by our instinct to look after each other. That is what we wish to do as Irish people and it is how we will prevail. We can all help to protect our loved ones, families, colleagues, friends and neighbours. Many of the ways in which we usually show our love and support are currently closed to us, but we must open an opportunity to make a real difference. The Irish people are already making that difference. When the HSE first started to trace the contacts of confirmed cases of Covid-19, those infected had been in contact with approximately 20 other people. Two weeks ago, that number had reduced to ten. One week ago, it had reduced to five and, today, it stands at just three. The truth is that the number of cases will continue to rise.
It is also true to say the rate of growth in new cases has gone from 33% to 10%. Let us be clear that this is still too high but we are showing, as a people, that we can do this and we can do more. We can see already some of the impacts of the measures the Taoiseach announced on 13 March and on 24 March but we have not seen the full impact of same and it is too soon to see any of the impacts of the extremely difficult and restrictive measures we announced last Friday. The message people need to hear is that they are already making a difference and if we all redouble our efforts, we can lower the growth rate more and save more lives.
I want to send a clear message to the Irish people and the Chief Medical Officer believes this and states same clearly. There is no doubt that through the countless efforts of so many people, lives have been already saved in our country. The work people are doing by sitting at home today, not going into work, having the children off school, restricting their movements, washing their hands well and practising good cough etiquette is saving lives. Lives have been saved already and we can do more. Our Chief Medical Officer is clearly telling us the number of cases is far fewer than it would have been in an unmitigated epidemic but this should not in any way confuse any of us about what we need to do because there can be no occasion for complacency. Rather, it is a call to arms to keep at it, to do even more if possible, to stay the course and to stay at home.
We all have to help our health service in planning for what lies ahead. Our health service staff are making huge personal sacrifices in the face of this virus, along with many other workers on the front line. I know the House will want to join me in again paying tribute to our health service personnel, including our doctors, nurses, ambulance personnel and paramedics, care workers, cleaners, porters, caterers, medical scientists and all of those working on the front line response to Covid-19. I also pay tribute to those who are working on the front line in keeping our supply chains going, keeping us fed, keeping production going in our country and keeping vital public transport going to get workers to and from work.
I will update the House on some of the key actions being taken as we step up our efforts to contain the spread of the virus and mitigate the consequences across society and particularly in our health service. We are making sure we do everything humanly possible to prepare our acute hospital system to deal with the increased demand that undoubtedly will be placed on its capacity. Deputies will be aware that the City West facility is open. It is a self-isolation facility with 750 beds. There will be also 450 step-down beds at this facility and we are opening similar facilities in other locations across the country. The work the HSE did in securing this hotel and in putting in place this system so quickly is incredible. It had its first 16 patients check in last night.
This week, we also concluded an important agreement with our private hospitals, which will increase the capacity of the health service in Ireland by 17%. It provides us with an additional 2,000 hospital beds across 19 hospitals, including a further 47 ICU beds, more high-dependency beds and 194 more ventilators, which are crucial.
The HSE is engaging, on a daily basis, with domestic and international suppliers to secure additional ventilators to meet the anticipated surge in demand for same. Procurement of these and other essential supplies is an ongoing challenge for all health systems, given an unprecedented global demand. This is a global pandemic and every country is looking for the same products and supplies. Therefore, Ireland has decided to join with other member states in the European Union, as part of a centralised joint procurement of medical supplies. The European Commission is preparing contracts for each member state to distribute the supplies in the coming weeks.
I am conscious of the focus on testing, which is understandable but I have to reiterate the advice of our public health experts. If one has symptoms, one should self-isolate for 14 days and members of one's household should do likewise. One does not need a test to follow this advice. Having a test does not affect one's need to self-isolate. The purpose of testing is for public health surveillance and tracking purposes. The test does not change one's treatment, which should and will be based on the advice of one's GP. As Members know, the national public health emergency team, chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, recently recommended a change to the case definition being used to identify people suspected of having Covid-19. This decision was based on a need to more carefully target our testing regime to ensure we are testing those who are most vulnerable and to help prioritise the testing of our healthcare workers. This has been somewhat effective as we are seeing the rate of those testing positive increase from 6% to 15%. In other words, we are having a more targeted approach and we are finding the virus more often. While we have more than 40 testing centres in the community, in recent days it is clear that testing capacity has been constrained due to a number of challenges. These are challenges we have in common with every other country and which the HSE is working hard to address.
It is really important to stress that we are still testing more than most other countries. At 6,000 tests per 1 million people in Ireland, we are near the very top of the league of countries in the amount of testing being done. However, we will ramp this up further. That is the right strategy.
The HSE has indicated that it now has sufficient test swabs and more orders will be delivered in coming days. The HSE is also making every effort to procure other stock including sourcing domestic production of reagents. It also plans to expand testing capacity. In addition to the national virus reference laboratory, 12 hospital laboratories are also now testing for Covid-19 with additional facilities due to come online. The expansion plan will also focus on increasing lab capacity in other settings. Plans for this expanded capacity are well developed and arrangements are being put in place with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for the use of its laboratory space. Current laboratory capacity stands at 1,500 samples per day but it remains our national aim and intention to expand to up to 15,000 tests. We will continue to provide regular updates to Members of this House and to the Irish people as these operational matters move further as well as to our wider work. I want to recognise in the House that a testing system that has to be sustainable, not just for today or tomorrow but also the weeks and months ahead, has been set up by the HSE in rapid time. It is true that there have been pinch points from time to time, but the HSE is working flat out to address them. These are challenges that are shared with other countries but I am happy that additional capacity is due to come on stream.
We have also moved to strengthen our support to nursing homes, other long-term residential care facilities and home support with focused actions to enhance the protection of staff and residents. These actions include infection prevention and control teams which can go into residential care settings and help to support the work of staff, prioritisation of staff in these settings for testing, active screening of all staff, including temperature checks twice a day, ensuring personal protective equipment is supplied to long-term residential care settings and home support providers and the development of a preparedness plan across the sector. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, has a specific subgroup on vulnerable people to provide oversight and assurance on the actions being taken to protect vulnerable groups and representatives from other agencies and voluntary providers of services to vulnerable people ensure that an integrated approach is now being taken. NPHET will meet again tomorrow when I expect it to receive a further update on the implementation of these new measures for long-term residential care settings. This is a very big public health issue which we must get right. Some of our oldest and most vulnerable residents are living in nursing homes and other residential settings. We must make sure that the safeguards are in place to protect them and also to ensure that we do not see the risk of infection spreading from there into the community.
Covid-19 continues to pose a very serious health threat in Ireland and across the world. This is a public health emergency. Our response to that emergency is being guided by the best international evidence and advice available. I thank my colleagues in the Government for the efforts being made in their Departments to support our efforts. I sincerely thank the Chief Medical Officer, who is back in work today and doing an incredible job on behalf of all of us and the country, and all his team working with him. I thank all Members of this House for a genuinely constructive approach and the support which has been shown by Members for the public health measures. We all know that this has not been easy but people are answering the call to help our country through this crisis. We have been overwhelmed by the offers of assistance, the voluntarism, the community spirit, that famous Irish meitheal. We thank the people who are coming to work on the front line despite the risks to themselves and, most importantly, we thank those who are staying at home to lessen the risks to those people and to everyone else.
We cannot stop this virus but we can slow its spread and we can flatten the curve. Phrases that were unfamiliar to us just weeks ago are now a national catch cry that unites us: flatten the curve. They are phrases that are now so over-familiar that we wish we could all stop saying them but we cannot: wash your hands, cover coughs and sneezes, keep your distance, stay apart, stay at home. Some day, they tell me, we will get back to normal life and I know we will. We also know that we will not get there unscathed. On that day, when we look back, we will look back at what we did and I hope that we can say that we did our damnedest for our country but, most importantly, for each other.