I thank the Chair and members of the committee for the invitation to update them on the Covid response. I am joined by Professor Philip Nolan, who is the chair of our modelling group, and Mr. Gerry O'Brien, who is the director of the health protection division at the Department of Health. The public health strategy for addressing Covid-19 is comprehensive and it is continually being strengthened. I will provide an overview of the current epidemiological status and recent developments in our response.
We have more reasons to be hopeful now than at any time in the pandemic to date. Our national vaccine programme is well under way. Last week, Ireland reached the milestone of 1 million vaccines administered. As of last Saturday, 19.3% of Ireland’s adult population have had at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine and 8% of adults, including those most vulnerable in our population, are fully protected. The positive impact is already being felt. For example, the percentage of Covid-19 cases in health care workers has been decreasing significantly and is down from 10% of all cases notified at the start of December to less than 2% of cases over the past 14 days.
We are seeing good progress in the trajectory of the disease. Our most recent data, up to midnight on 11 April, shows that the 14-day incidence rate decreased to 132 per 100,000 population, a reduction of 15% from the previous week. The five-day moving average of new cases reduced to 404, a reduction of 23% from the previous week. Case numbers reported on Sunday were the lowest reported since mid-December. This is further proof that our collective efforts continue to make a real difference. The average number of close contacts has held remarkably low and steady over the past month, and this is proving critical to preventing the spread of the virus.
Hospital and intensive care numbers are also moving in the right direction. As of this morning, there were 206 Covid patients in acute hospitals, 48 of whom were in ICU. This is the first time the number of people in critical care has been fewer than 50 since New Year's Day. We have seen a dramatic reduction in the numbers dying with this disease. At the end of January 2021, the average number of deaths being reported over a seven-day period was 49 per day and by the end of March it was down to eight deaths per day.
We have resumed our priority public services. Yesterday, schools returned in full, childcare fully resumed at the end of last month, and the HSE has a comprehensive plan in place for the full resumption of non-Covid health and social care services over the course of this year. We should not underestimate this achievement. Schools remain closed across many EU countries and healthcare systems across the continent are under immense pressure. We have also taken our first steps this week on what will, hopefully, be a steady pathway to reopening our economy and society. Further measures will ease later in the month, enabling more outdoor activities and socialisation to improve the health and well-being of society.
All of this means that we can be hopeful of a return to better and more normal times. However, while significant progress is being made in controlling the disease and in rolling out vaccines, we still have a high level of infection. We are dealing with a much more transmissible virus than last year, and the absolute number of people fully protected through vaccination remains low.
This means that there remains a considerable risk that Ireland will experience a further wave of infection if public health measures are eased too quickly. However, modelling has shown that a further wave of infection can be substantially mitigated if levels of social contact across the population remain largely unchanged over the next six weeks. For the coming weeks, the priority must be maintaining control over the disease until vaccination can offer a widespread population level of protection.
NPHET's advice to the Government continues to recommend a cautious approach and that any further easing of measures should be gradual and phased and allow adequate time between phases to assess the impact. Our priorities also remain the same: to protect the most vulnerable, facilitate the safe return of in-school education and childcare services, and resume non-Covid health and social care. NPHET will continue monitoring the epidemiological situation closely over the coming weeks to assess the impact of the reopening of priority services and the easing of measures. NPHET and the Government will consider the position again at the beginning of May.
We are also continuously strengthening key elements of our response to ensure that we have comprehensive systems for preventing and containing the transmission of this virus. The HSE has developed significant capacity and capability across its testing and contact tracing service and a range of further enhancements were implemented recently. These included the introduction of walk-in testing centres in high-incidence areas where asymptomatic people can get a test free of charge, the expansion of source investigation to identify where transmission may have occurred in more cases, and the further roll-out of rapid antigen testing pilot studies. Significant steps have also been taken to strengthen measures in respect of international travel. Many countries continue to struggle with high levels of infection and there are a number of variants of the virus that cause us great concern. It is important that we not risk the progress that we are making nationally by exposing ourselves to variants that may have serious consequences on the impact of our vaccination programme.
We must be careful that we not consider any one of the above measures as a panacea. Our consistent message throughout the pandemic has been that a combination or layering of measures is the most effective means of controlling this disease. The most effective measures of all are those that we can take ourselves - wearing a face mask, keeping our distance, practising good hand hygiene, keeping indoor spaces well ventilated, and isolating and presenting for testing if we have symptoms.
While we now have tangible reasons for hope, we must continue together to move cautiously over the coming weeks to ensure we protect the significant gains we have made in recent months and to allow us time to protect more people, particularly the most vulnerable, through vaccination. Despite the very understandable levels of fatigue, we know that the level of support for public health guidance remains high. The efforts of the vast majority of the population are continuing to help suppress viral transmission in our communities. I thank the public, in particular healthcare workers, for their ongoing support. My hope is that we will never again have to recommend more restrictive measures. However, to achieve this, we must continue to hold the line in the coming weeks as our vaccine programme ramps up.