The rate of COVID-19 related hospitalisations and ICU admissions in the population is determined by several factors, particularly the prevailing force of infection in the community, the proportion of those infected who are in the older age groups or at-risk groups, population immunity levels arising from vaccination or prior infection and overall adherence to the public health measures in place to reduce the risk of transmission.
Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent hospitalisations, severe illness and death related to COVID19 and it is a particular priority to ensure that all eligible people are fully vaccinated. However, vaccinations are not 100% effective, and some fully vaccinated people will become infected (breakthrough infection) and experience illness. While the benefits of vaccination against hospitalisation and deaths have been sustained for at least six months for all European Medicines Agency (EMA) authorised vaccines, the risk of breakthrough infections and symptomatic disease increases over time.
In Ireland, as of 9th December more than 90% of those aged 12 years and older are fully vaccinated. Ireland is currently undergoing a prolonged surge in case numbers despite high vaccine uptake, with an associated high level of ICU admissions. This is considered to be due to a number of factors, including the highly transmissible Delta variant, waning of vaccine immunity and the opening up of society over recent months with an increase in socialisation. The rate of hospitalisation of unvaccinated people is substantially higher than in those who are fully vaccinated. However, as vaccination rates are so high, the proportion of those vaccinated who are admitted to hospital and ICU settings is increasing
The risks of severe COVID-19, hospitalisation and ICU admission are lower in younger people, but are not negligible. The presence of an underlying condition increases the risk of severe COVID-19 and booster vaccination has been recommended for those identified in this category. For all, there remains a residual risk, that decreases with age, of severe COVID-19 even in those with no risk factors. This risk will increase as the force of infection in the community remains high and as time from initial primary vaccination schedule elapses.
Ireland is currently in a very uncertain and unstable position due to the high incidence of COVID-19 driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant. This is a matter of very significant concern as we wait for more evidence relating to the Omicron variant and the impact it may have to emerge.
I am advised that based on the evidence available to us, we believe that the public health measures we are so familiar with will work to slow and stop the transmission of the Omicron variant, as well as the Delta variant. Early indications suggest that a booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine will offer good protection against infection from Delta and Omicron.
It is of the utmost importance that all those eligible for a booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine take the opportunity to receive this vaccine as soon as it is offered. Similarly, those yet to receive a primary dose of COVID-19 vaccine should come forward as soon as possible. COVID-19 related hospitalisation and severe illness can be prevented by optimising the protection afforded by vaccination.