DUBLIN (Reuters) -Ireland on Tuesday reported its highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases, and the government began its COVID-19 vaccination campaign by giving a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to a 79-year-old woman at a hospital in Dublin.
Ireland had one of the lowest infection rates in Europe a few weeks ago, but its seven-day average has tripled over the past 14 days to 1,034 cases following an easing of public health measures ahead of Christmas.
"The numbers are rising exponentially," Health Minister Stephen Donnelly told RTE after cases increased to 1,546 cases from the previous record of 1,296 cases hit last Saturday.
The vaccination of 79-year-old Annie Lynch at Dublin's St James's Hospital also made Tuesday "a day of hope" for the country, Donnelly said. Health staff and patients at three other hospitals were also vaccinated.
Ireland brought forward the vaccine programme by a day following criticism it was acting too slowly after receiving the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 26, as part of a coordinated European Union-wide roll-out.
The country plans to vaccinate all 75,000 people who live or work in nursing homes and tens of thousands of other health workers by the end of February, Donnelly said.
A senior official said Ireland may be able to provide a COVID-19 vaccine to everyone in the country who wants one by August in a "fairly positive scenario" that would depend on the timing of approval of other vaccines.
The government announced an emergency meeting on Wednesday to consider additional measures to try to control the surge, which has seen the number of people in hospital jumping to 409 on Tuesday from 234 a week ago.
Officials announced new restrictions before Christmas, including closure of bars and restaurants and limits on travel, but it has not yet closed non-essential retail and is allowing some household visits until Thursday.
A total of 88,439 have been infected in Ireland since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and 2,213 people have died as a result, the health ministry said.
The British region of Northern Ireland also reported its highest-ever number of cases on Tuesday with 1,566.
(Reporting by Conor Humphries; editing by Barbara Lewis and David Gregorio)