2020: How Wigan's hospital trust coped with its toughest year ever
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The virus was spreading across the world too fast for any country to handle, and its deadliness was becoming apparent to every health service.
In Italy, there were stark images of entire wards lined with coffins.
Wrightington Wigan and Leigh (WWL) NHS bosses were determined not to let that happen here.
When the virus began spreading across the UK, radical transformations were put into practice across the NHS Trust’s bases.
Over the course of this year, the borough’s NHS has faced some immense obstacles.
Here, we take a look at some of the pivotal moments of the pandemic.
Wigan’s health workers are trained up on how to spot and deal with the potentially deadly coronavirus, should it hit the borough.
At the time, there are very few confirmed cases in the UK, but with the virus severely affecting China and quickly spreading across Europe, medical bosses say they are leaving nothing to chance.
Wigan’s first confirmed death related to Covid-19. A 72-year-old man dies on March 22 at Wigan Infirmary.
His family say he contracted the disease while on a holiday to Spain, but was unaware of his condition until shortly after he returned to the UK. Quarantined in an isolation room during his final hours, his family were unable to properly say goodbye to him.
His daughter later urges Wigan residents to follow social distancing, and to remain indoors for as long as possible to avoid infecting the most vulnerable people in the borough.
Chief Executive Silas Nicholls reveals that WWL is ready to launch an “all hands on deck” plan as the virus spreads at breakneck speed across the country.
Mr Nicholls announces that Wigan Infirmary will become entirely dedicated to Coronavirus patients.
All non-Covid emergency cases are transferred to Wrightington Hospital, and a rallying cry for volunteers is issued.
Plans are drawn up for an entirely new ward, which will be built in the car park.
Once constructed, it will house 50 new beds to help cope with the pressure, including 27 intensive care unit beds
Hours after Mr Nicholls’s interview, the Prime Minister announces an unprecedented national lockdown.
Dr Sanjay Arya, a consultant cardiologist and medical director at Wigan Infirmary, reveals a drastic drop in the number of people seeking emergency treatment, out of fear of infection if they visit a hospital.
Dr Arya assures poorly Wiganers that it is perfectly safe to be treated in hospital and that Covid patients are kept well away from everyone else.
In the same month, Dr Arya also addresses concerns about a lack of PPE for frontline workers.
Staff and patients are assured that the hospital has enough disposable gowns and masks, amid social media claims of short supplies.
“We are taking regular deliveries of equipment and we are ensuring the appropriate PPE is delivered to all wards and departments where it is needed,” says Dr Arya, adding: “I completely understand that anxiety amongst our staff is running high at this very difficult time but it is important for everyone to know that we are making sure our patients, staff, agency workers, volunteers and other colleagues are protected and can stay safe.”
Dr Abdul Ashish, a chest physician and Medical Director for the medicine division at Wigan Infirmary, says that despite an increase in coronavirus cases, the growth rate is slowing down. At the time, more than 13,000 people have died with the virus in the UK, including 60 in Wigan.
Dr Ashish says that although many people have died, the number of people recovering from the illness is far higher.
“It’s a bit too early to say for sure, but we feel we are on top of managing this virus here in Wigan,” he says.
Dr Ashish also speaks about the cutting-edge research being carried out at Wrightington Hospital as part of a national response to the virus.
WWL is one of the first three NHS trusts in the country to begin research into Covid-19, recruiting patients to assist with vital medical studies.
The Trust’s Research and Development department, based at Wrightington Hospital, is conducting national research in the fight against Covid-19, by carrying out clinical trials with patients who have been admitted to hospital with Covid-19, joining a study called Recovery, overseen by the National Institute of Health Research.
Bryn Ward officially opens at Wigan Infirmary. The modular unit is built in Wigan Infirmary’s car park. The ward ensures that the hospital has the extra capacity and resilience to cope with patients who will need hospital treatment for Covid-19.
Dr Arya reveals there were fears among medical bosses when the outbreak first began.
“I think the biggest challenge was the fear of the unknown,” he says.
“We had heard that Covid-19 was a very deadly virus. We had heard, and seen, the huge numbers of deaths which were happening around the world, and the huge number of patients who needed to be hospitalised and needed ventilation and critical care beds.
“Preparing the hospital for this pandemic was the biggest challenge, especially because we are the biggest borough in Greater Manchester, and given that we have the fastest ageing population and are one of the more deprived areas of Greater Manchester. So keeping all these things in mind, and all that we had seen, preparing the organisation so well was a big challenge.”
The Trust announces it is slowly bringing back non-emergency procedures, such as life, limb, sight and hearing operations, to Wigan Infirmary.
Dr Arya says the hospital is “well prepared for a second surge”, should one come, and that staff were rehearsing procedures from the first wave of the virus.
On July 31, Greater Manchester is placed into a higher level of Covid-19 restrictions following a surge in infections across the city region.
Following a review by all 10 Greater Manchester council leaders, Wigan is removed from the region-wide restrictions after a steady decline in new cases.
The announcement paves the way for different households to socialise at home or in gardens again, as well as allowing businesses like bowling alleys, soft play centres and beauty salons to reopen.
The borough has the second lowest average infection rate, with around 12.2 cases per 100,000 people.
Less than a month later, Lisa Nandy MP confirms that the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has told her Wigan will be placed back into the Greater Manchester-wide Covid-19 measures following a rise in infection rates.
Covid-19 cases begin to rise again across the country, quicker than during the first wave. Wigan borough has gone from having the lowest number of Covid-19 cases in Greater Manchester during the summer, to now having the second highest.
The steep rise in infections sees WWL scale back the number of non-emergency procedures and appointments. Wigan Infirmary’s dedicated Covid unit, Bryn Ward, is at full capacity.
Dr Arya reasserts his belief that the borough’s health services are ready to fight the second wave, despite it putting far more pressure on the NHS than the first outbreak.
There are more patients being treated at Wigan Infirmary for Covid-19 than there were during the first wave.
Staffing levels also become a significant issue for Wigan Infirmary during the second wave, due to more medical workers being tested for the virus.
Figures from Public Health England indicate that the borough now has an infection rate of 464.9 cases per 100,000 of the population, but the growth rate is slowing down faster than anywhere else in Greater Manchester.
The Government approves the Pfizer vaccine for use after studies show it to be 95 per cent effective. Plans for a phased roll-out begin
An army of volunteers are lined up to administer the vaccines at several sites across the borough. The borough’s health experts have urged residents to keep following Covid-19 restrictions in the coming months.
On December 30, it is announced that the Oxford vaccine has also been approved for use, and will be rolled out from early January.
Dr Tim Dalton, chair of Wigan borough’s Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), urges people to take caution when visiting relatives over Christmas, to minimise the risk of spreading the virus.
“We need to keep our vigilance up,” he said.
“We want to avoid tragedies over Christmas.
“Christmas is important, family is important, but remember the rules - they are also important.”
Dr Arya says: “Please be patient, be tolerant, as you have been, and we will conquer this virus. We are confident that next year will be a better year for all of us.
“Let’s celebrate Christmas, but also remember those who have sadly lost their lives and dedicate this Christmas to those people from Wigan, and across the country.”
On December 31, the last day of a terrible year, Wigan was placed into Tier 4 with the closure of all non-essential shops, hospitality and personal services. A tough end to a harrowing 2020.
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