DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland has seen a more than four-fold increase in coronavirus outbreaks in nursing homes in the space of a week, prompting a number of new measures to protect vulnerable elderly residents, officials said on Friday.

Across the whole country, the rate of increase in infections has more than halved since a series of restrictions were put in place from mid March. Ireland reported 424 new cases on Friday, bringing the total to 3,849 with 120 related deaths.

However the number of nursing homes reporting clusters of cases rose to 38 from nine from March 24 to March 31, according to the most recent data released on Friday from Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE).

The HSE said it will send some senior nurses, medics and public health doctors into nursing homes to improve infectious disease control and will also ask for agency staff working in numerous nursing homes to be deployed in a dedicated facility.

“There were extensive arrangements in place across the nursing home sector and infection prevention control guidelines that should have been applied,” Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Tony Holohan, told a news conference.

“It is true to say there are some environments that are of very high standard and continue to be very safe and effective places to receive care, there are other places that may be not quite at that same standard. What we have to do is try to raise the performance of that whole sector.”

Outbreaks in nursing homes accounted for almost a quarter of the 160 clusters around the country at the end of March, the HSE data showed. Hospitals accounted for another 18%.

While Irish health officials have said four to five people make up the average cluster, Stephen Donnelly, health spokesman for the main opposition Fianna Fail party, told parliament on Thursday that almost 100 staff members and residents in one nursing home had tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Health officials across the world have warned that the elderly are especially vulnerable in the pandemic.

The median age of deaths in Ireland is 82, compared to a median age of 48 of all those infected, according to data from Ireland’s health department.

HSE chief Paul Reid said nursing homes would be prioritised in the distribution of new personal protective equipment (PPE), which is in short supply around the world.

The HSE received the first 10% of 60 airplane loads of PPE ordered from China this week, although it said on Friday that some of the equipment was not suitable for use and some would have to be repurposed.

“We’re not dealing in a normal market, it’s a very volatile market,” Reid told national broadcaster RTE, adding that a “significant proportion” of what had arrived was adequate and that forthcoming orders would be rectified.

“But we are in a much better place than we were last week and we are in a much better place than many other countries.”

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; editing by Andrew Heavens, William Maclean)