Fears of hard winter over Covid and flu mix

time:2023-05-31 02:46:58 source:The New York Times

More than a quarter of Welsh hospital beds could be taken up by patients with Covid, flu and other respiratory illnesses at the winter peak, according to latest predictions from scientists.

A "worst case" scenario suggests 2,750 hospital beds could be full.

Health Minister Eluned Morgan, unveiling her winter plan, said it was "never too late to be vaccinated".

Last winter the UK escaped the typical flu season, thanks to the high prevalence of mask wearing.

But modelling by Welsh government scientists suggests in a "worst case" scenario that Covid, flu and other respiratory conditions could account for 2,750 hospital beds - or 28% of total capacity at the peak.

The "most likely" scenario peaks at about 1,400 occupied beds, or 14% capacity.

Covid admissions are "most likely" to peak at 100 patients in December, according to the scientific report.

"It is still possible we may see a relatively quiet winter in terms of pressures due to influenza, Covid and other respiratory viruses - however 'hope' is not a good planning strategy," the report says.

Fiona Kinghorn, public health director at Cardiff and Vale health board, fears "we're in for a hard winter" and said cases were already starting to rise.

But a simultaneous peak in flu and Covid cases is something Ms Kinghorn said she was "extremely worried about".

She added: "It's very difficult to predict the trend but it's likely that as we get into November we'll start to get much higher numbers of cases.

"We don't have the immunity like we had the past couple of years, because we had so many measures that helped protect against respiratory viruses," she said.

"So we are really worried we're going to have a difficult winter.

"We're worried about the impact on our health service, and our social care services. Our health services are already under strain."

Ms Kinghorn said the Cardiff and Vale region alone had already given out 75,000 vaccine doses.

Public Health Wales figures show 66% of care home residents have received their autumn Covid booster, though the figure is as low as 17.5% in Pembrokeshire.

The target is that all those eligible will be offered a jab by the end of November, with 363,023 having received theirs up to 5 October.

GPs are worried that flu and Covid will add to already increasing pressures on the service, including people on waiting lists reporting their conditions are getting worse.

Dr Phil White, vaccination lead for the BMA's Welsh GPs' committee, said there could be a "substantial increase" in cases compared to the past two years, given the experience already in Australia and other southern hemisphere countries.

This is often the forerunner of what happens in the winter here.

"Come December and January, we might well be in the throes of an epidemic unless we ensure everyone who needs to be vaccinated is vaccinated for both influenza and Covid," he said.

In addition, the goal is that those eligible will be offered a flu vaccine by the end of December.

Among those getting the jab on Monday was Katie, who works in the medical genetics department at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff.

"We see a lot of immunocompromised patients undergoing chemotherapy," she said.

"By protecting myself I'm also protecting both them and other workers within the department, to make sure we get crucial results out to patients when they need."

Janet Ferguson, from Cardiff, said she felt it was important to get her fourth Covid jab.

"Because of my age and I see a lot of the elderly, so it's protecting them as well," she said.

The health minister said she is expecting rates of Covid and flu to bring "quite an intense peak" towards December and January.

"If we had flu and Covid at same time, when people want to take time off, that'll be a crunch point for us," said Ms Morgan though she added that health boards have been working on a plan to try to take pressure off the system.

The minister has also announced an additional £2m to upgrade emergency department waiting areas over the winter.

The money will be spent on improved seating, information screens, better access to food and water, along with wifi and charging points.

It comes as many A&E departments have seen patients waiting 12 hours or more at peak times in basic waiting areas.

Asked if that investment is an indication of what patients can expect, the minister said, "I think those waiting in A&E will be grateful for the additional investment."

She added that further announcements are due on increasing bed capacity in hospitals, which would be "proportionately more than in England" but the details are being finalised with local authorities.

The Welsh Conservatives said it was a "statement of ambition, not a plan, and while what has been outlined includes positive steps, it comes far too late for an NHS long under pressure".

The NHS Confederation in Wales, which represents health boards, said: "The NHS continues to strive to improve services, waiting times and outcomes for patients. But without key system changes, such as a long-term, sustainable plan and investment in social care, patient flow through the system will continue to be an issue".

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