Northern Ireland recorded an average of five new Covid-19 cases every minute on Thursday.
The region has recorded its worst daily case rate of 7,215 – a 53% increase on figures relating to the previous 24-hour period.
It comes as a senior health official asked the public to do everything possible to stay safe on New Year’s Eve as the ambulance service faces an “unprecedented” workforce crisis.
Dr Nigel Ruddell, medical director of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS), made the appeal as he revealed the organisation has been hit by the worst staff shortages it has ever experienced.
More than a quarter of the NIAS workforce is absent from work, of which 220 are Covid-related absences.
The situation has become so severe that the most urgent 999 calls are facing delayed response times.
Dr Ruddell said heart attack patients are typically waiting up to an hour for an ambulance to arrive and that some stroke patients are being advised to make their own way to A&E.
While the Omicron wave has caused staffing shortages across all sectors, the health service has been particularly hard hit, with the exhausted workforce already depleted after almost two years of the pandemic.
Dr Ruddell said: “The pressure has been building significantly and will continue to build over the next couple of weeks.
“We’re busy every Christmas but we’ve never seen anything like this before, none of us have seen staff shortages like this before.
“The combination of staff shortages and delays in handing over patients at the hospitals is seriously impacting on our response times.
“We have 1,400 staff in total, 220 are unavailable because they either have, or have been exposed to Covid, while about 150 staff are off through general sickness.
“This all means we’re not meeting our response targets, even for the most urgent of calls and, we’re very upfront about this, it means there is a risk to patients.
“As a result, we’re taking the difficult decision to advise patients on a case-by-case basis to make their own way to hospital, where it is safe for them to do so.
“If a patient has a stroke, it’s better for them to get to hospital themselves and begin treatment within 20 minutes than wait an hour for an ambulance.
“I am sorry that this is the case and I worry about everyone who experiences a delayed response, it’s not what we would want, but we’re doing our best under the circumstances.”
Dr Ruddell said, despite the pressures on the system, it is essential that the public calls 999 in the event of a medical emergency.
This allows NIAS staff to assess the situation and offer advice on what steps to take.
However, he urged the public to refrain from making multiple 999 calls to check the arrival time of an ambulance and only ring back if a patient’s condition changes.
This ensures phone lines are kept free to enable other people to log a medical emergency, he said.
And speaking ahead of the New Year’s Eve celebrations, he continued: “We would appeal that on a night of spirited celebrations, that people are sensible and don’t get into a position where they end up having to call us.”
Meanwhile, availability of Covid-19 tests remained sporadic on Friday afternoon.
There were no home PCR tests for the general public or essential workers and no slots available at drive-through centres for the general public either.
There was also limited availability of appointment slots for drive-through PCR tests for essential workers.
At the same time, there were no home delivery slots available for rapid lateral flow tests (LFTs), despite the fact they are a key part of the government policy to reduce isolation times to ease workforce pressures.
The public has also been advised to take LFTs before attending crowded indoor areas or visiting people who are vulnerable to Covid-19.