Public health chief warns of 'tough January' as omicron rates soar in Wigan
The expected surge in coronavirus cases due to the Omicron variant has now arrived in Wigan, with infection rates in the borough higher than anywhere else in Greater Manchester.
Wigan’s health chiefs warned in late December that it was “inevitable” that the rising number of cases in London would make its way up the country and start to affect more and more people in the borough.
Preparations were made, including the rollout of the booster jab, and people were urged to take precautions over the festive period to help prevent the spread.
But as predicted, infection rates have soared in recent days, up a massive 81.5 per cent from 3,768 cases to 8,394 in the seven days up to Monday, January 3.
Wigan had 2,334.1 cases per 100,000 people in data released on Tuesday afternoon, one of the highest rates for local authorities in England.
And two areas of the borough - Standish south and Standish north - were among the top 20 localities nationally for infection rates.
Prof Kate Ardern, director of public health at Wigan Council, said: “We have a highly transmissible virus. What we are seeing here is that this reflects the social mixing that has happened over Christmas unfortunately.
“There is nothing we can do about that - that’s happened - and I am expecting the rates to continue to rise because there will have been more social mixing over Christmas and New Year, so we have hard baked in transmission going on.
“The age groups particularly affected are 16 to 29 and 30 to 44, so the people who might do more socialising.
“We are also seeing the top end of the older age group 45 to 64.”
Cases of coronavirus began to rise quickly in London in December as the Omicron variant was identified and started to spread across the country.
There were cases in Greater Manchester, but that has now really taken hold since the festive season.
Prof Ardern said: “The whole of Greater Manchester is heating up. Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Salford were having higher rates before Christmas and we have caught them up and overtaken them.”
While most of the cases so far have been among younger people, perhaps due to the take-up of the booster jab and precautions taken by older people, she said that “worryingly” rates among the over 60s were increasing.
And although omicron is thought to be less severe than the delta form of coronavirus, people should still be concerned about the large number of positive cases.
Hospital admissions are rising and Wigan’s hospitals, as well as others across Greater Manchester, have now stopped providing most elective care as they deal with the new wave of the pandemic.
Prof Ardern said: “The message is with rates that high - and they are going to continue getting higher - although Omicron is less likely to cause serious illness, it’s still going to create larger numbers of people who do require medical attention, because of the scale at which it’s going through the population.
“Its high transmissibility is translating into high numbers. We are seeing a rise in admissions and patient diagnoses.
“There is a lag period, it doesn’t happen immediately. As transmission rates go up, there is a two-week lag before that translates to hospital admissions, but we are starting to see that now.
“It’s going to be a really tough January and there’s no question about that.”
The latest data on hospital admissions published by the Government shows 36 people were admitted to the borough’s hospitals in the seven days up to December 26, a 38.5 per cent rise on the previous week, and that is understood to have increased since.
Silas Nicholls, chief executive at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Like trusts across the country we are currently incredibly busy, with significant demand in our emergency and urgent care services, and in terms of our ongoing response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with rapidly rising rates of infections in our communities and admissions to hospital as well as the impact that has on staffing.
“Patient safety is our number one priority, and we have plans in place to make sure that we can care for those patients who are seriously ill or have life-threatening conditions and our staff continue to work tirelessly with partners to ensure we have the capacity needed to treat as many of our patients as possible in the safest environment.”
It will take time to see the impact of pupils returning to schools after the Christmas holiday, though testing is being carried out and high school pupils are now being told to wear a mask in lessons.
Work is also being done to address staff absences, as people test positive for Covid-19, have to isolate or are caring for those who do.
Rapid testing is available for frontline key workers, to ensure essential services can continue to operate.
The situation is already affecting GP surgeries, with Shevington Surgery reporting earlier this week that it was “extremely short staffed” due to coronavirus cases and self-isolation rules.
Dr Tim Dalton, a GP and chairman of NHS Wigan Borough CCG, said: “Like every other business at the moment, we are seeing more staff being affected by Covid-19 – either testing positive themselves or being the contact of someone who has tested positive.
“However, local GP practices whilst stretched are coping really well and are supporting each other to make sure that patients who need their help can get it.
“Don’t forget that if you need to see a GP or nurse outside of working hours, you can ring 01942 482848 for an appointment on evenings and weekends, or ring 111 for the out-of-hours GP overnight.”
Wiganers are being urged to do everything they can to help prevent the spread of coronavirus and keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
Prof Ardern said: “Wear your face coverings, wash your hands, get those windows open, work from home if you possibly can and think about your social contacts.
“I know it’s been tricky in terms of getting hold of lateral flow tests, but please persevere with that.
“If you can do it twice a week, please do.
“Flow to go - if you are thinking of going out and doing social mixing, really do take a lateral flow test, particularly if you are seeing elderly relatives.
“Lastly, if you haven’t been for your jab, please book an appointment.
“Get your primary course as soon as possible.
“You can still book for that. If you are due your booster, go and get your booster please.”
Mr Nicholls added: “We are profoundly grateful to staff for their hard work and dedication and would urge the public to support us by doing everything they can to protect their families and friends, ensuring they are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, following guidance around social distancing, wearing masks and washing their hands, and seeking help from the most appropriate health services, only attending A&E for serious accidents and emergencies, and using NHS 111 first to seek advice about the most appropriate care for your needs.
“This will help you to get the healthcare you need in the right place and at the right time, whilst keeping A&E and other urgent services available for those who need it the most.”
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