Arctic weather conditions hit hospitals

THE country’s hospitals were at crisis point last night as forecasters predicted that the Arctic weather conditions are set to get even worse.

With admissions up and hospitals running at full capacity, medical teams will today have to brace themselves for a wave of admissions as atrocious conditions take their toll.

After widespread ice and freezing fog last night, along with isolated wintry showers and lowest temperatures of minus-7C, more frost and ice is set to persist throughout much of today.

And although it will remain largely dry, forecasters say temperatures could fall as low as minus-5C during today, and plunge even further to minus-10C by nightfall.

The cold snap has already led to an increase in the number of people presenting themselves at A&E departments, mainly with broken limbs caused by falls on ice.

Almost all the hospitals contacted reported operating at full capacity, with staff at Limerick’s Mid Western Regional Hospital admitting they could face problems in their ability to cope if the icy conditions continue.

Staff in Cork A&E hospital services admitted that they are trying to cope with ‘severe overcrowding’ as they deal with patient numbers more than seven times their usual amount.

Gardaí yesterday warned all motorists to reduce their speed, plan their journeys and to be extra careful on all roads around the country.

A Met Éireann spokesman said last night: ‘The first week in 2010 is set to be bitterly cold. Heavy snow showers are likely, as well as very severe frosts.

‘Daytime temperatures are predictedjust above freezingwith icy conditions persisting all day in many areas, and night-time temperatures will fall from minus-5C to minus-10C in some parts of the country.

These conditions will make travelling dangerous for all.’

A&E departments at Cork University Hospital and the city’s Mercy University Hospital were last night suffering severe overcrowding as ice- and snow-related injuries increased almost eight-fold.

Dr Chris Luke, a consultant in emergency medicine at the two hospitals, said: ‘We are struggling but in the end we have to manage.

‘In the last week we have had horrendous days trying to cope with the masses of people coming through the doors.’

Normally, over the Christmas period the hospital deals with a variety of winter illnesses.

However, in the past week the hospitals’ casualty department has seen a significant increase in young people being admitted.

Mr Luke said: ‘There have been a lot of orthopaedic-related injuries in young people, which is very unusual. Things like injuries to upper limbs and the hip area.

Personally, the worse injury I saw last week was when a woman in her late-30s fell heavily on ice and snapped her arm in two.’

Noting that there had been an increase in the number of people coming in with injuries sustained in car crashes, Mr Luke said the A&E department had seen its busiest weekend in 10 years.

And there have been similar scenes in hospitals in the capital where a spokeswoman for Beaumont Hospital confirmed that there had been an increase in the number of casualties presenting with injuries ‘caused by falling on ice’.

She went on: ‘You would think we would end up treating mainly elderly patients but that has not been the case so far.

‘The elderly are mainly staying indoors. It’s the younger people who are making up the majority of admissions.’

Limerick General Hospital was last night running at full capacity with all its 360 beds taken.

A spokeswoman said last night: ‘There could be problems if things carry on as they are because we are running flat out at the moment.’

In Dublin, hospitals have been taking measures to ensure that staff are not caught unawares by the weather.

To avoid nurses, doctors and orderlies being trapped at home, hospitals are even opening up wards and laying on beds for medical staff to sleep in. At Beaumont, St Vincent’s and The Mater hospitals in Dublin, staff were being put up in onsite accommodation.

More than 200 nurses who live in Wicklow, Meath, Wexford and Louth but work in Dublin were this weekend being accommodated.

In Beaumont, for example, staff were being housed in rooms normally reserved for parents of children being treated there.

A spokeswoman said last night: ‘I can’t remember anything like it in nearly 20 years.

‘We have staff coming to work here from as far away as Drogheda and Navan and the road conditions are so atrocious that we are having to put them up in specially arranged accommodation.

‘If the cold snap continues, we have a contingency plan ready, but so far, we are coping well.’

Meanwhile, officials at Dublin Airport say that if conditions return to those of New Year’s Eve – when there were repeated snow falls and temperatures plummeted to minus-5C – Dublin Airport could be forced to close again.

Last night, a spokeswoman said: ‘We have all our snow and ice teams working flat out and we are doing our level best to keep the airport open.

‘But there is a point where conditions mean the airport just can’t operate. We are committed to keeping it open but we also have a responsibility for maintaining safety standards.’

Last night, as temperatures plummeted, Age Action Ireland launched an appeal for people to visit their elderly relatives or neighbours.