DUBLIN, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's health minister on Sunday night said COVID-19 was placing the healthcare system under pressure "like never before," as one hospital appealed on social media for the immediate help of all off-duty healthworkers nearby.
The British-run region has struggled with persistently high coronavirus infection rates despite being in and out of some form of lockdown since October. Cases soared to by far their highest level since the pandemic began after the Christmas holidays.
The Western Health and Social Care Trust, one of the five regional groups that run Northern Ireland's hospitals, made the call to workers near the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH) in the town Enniskillen, close to the border with Ireland.
"Attention all off-duty staff in the vicinity of SWAH. Due to increasing pressures this evening on the NI (Northern Irish) Healthcare System we are appealing to you to contact or go directly to the hospital. Thank You," the Trust said on Twitter.
Patients were being diverted to Enniskillen due to pressure on hospitals elsewhere, it added.
A Sinn Fein lawmaker, Liz Kimmins, whose party jointly leads the devolved regional government, also posted a message she said was sent to nurses at another hospital in the town of Craigavon calling on off duty staff to help on Sunday night.
Health Minister Robin Swann shared a statement from the chief executives of the hospital groups urging people to only go to emergency rooms if they need emergency care, and that patients will need to leave the hospital as soon as they are medically fit to do so.
That might mean families "having to go the extra mile" to provide temporary support for relatives, they said. They warned that those arriving by ambulance may have to wait hours before space is available in already stretched emergency departments.
The statement added that despite hospitals already being at 94% capacity, modelling projections indicate they will be contending with double the number of COVID-19 patients in the third week in January.
"Our health service is under pressure, like never before, please play your part, follow guidance, you know what to do!" Swann said on Twitter. (Reporting by Padraic Halpin Editing by Bill Berkrot)
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