DUBLIN, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Health officials in Ireland, where a more infectious variant of the coronavirus first discovered in England has been surging, said on Saturday they believe three cases of another new variant found in South Africa had been contained.
Ireland is grappling with a COVID-19 surge that has exceeded last year's first wave. It confirmed the first cases of the more infectious variant found in South Africa on Friday in people who had travelled to Ireland from South Africa over the Christmas holidays.
Ireland this week reported an increasing presence of the variant first found in England. It was detected in 25% of positive cases that underwent further testing in the week to Jan. 3, up from just 9% two weeks earlier.
"The UK variant is of more concern to us purely because of the amount of virus that's on the island, and we know that it's transmitting in the community," Cillian De Gascun, the head of Ireland's national virus laboratory, told national broadcaster RTE.
"The good thing about the South African variant is we know exactly where those cases came from, they have been contained, controlled and contact traced, and to the best of my knowledge there was no onward transmission."
The government announced its strictest lockdown measures since early last year on Wednesday, warning that a "tsunami" of infections fuelled by the UK variant and the relaxation of curbs ahead of Christmas could overwhelm the healthcare system.
The number of patients in Irish hospitals with COVID-19 rose by 12% in the space of 24 hours on Saturday to 1,285, having in recent days exceeded the peak of 881 set during the first wave of infections.
Fourteen more patients were admitted to intensive care units (ICU). That brought the total number receiving critical care to 119 and left just 27 of the 284 ICU beds in the country's public hospitals empty.
Those hospitals can increase ICU capacity safely to 375, the head of Ireland Health Service Executive (HSE) said this week. The HSE has also reached an agreement to take over private hospital ICU beds for COVID-19 admissions. (Reporting by Padraic Halpin)
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