Warning that surge in omicron cases in Wigan is 'inevitable' over coming days

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Wigan’s health staff are bracing themselves for a surge in the number of patients with coronavirus over the coming days.

High infection rates of the new omicron virus in London are expected to make their way to the North West soon.

There are already rising number of patients with Covid-19 at the borough’s hospitals and preparations are being made for when even more people arrive for care.

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While omicron is said to be milder than other variants, it is more transmissible, so there are concerns more people will become very ill.

Dr Tim DaltonDr Tim Dalton
Dr Tim Dalton

People across Wigan are being urged to play their part in helping to prevent the spread of the virus in the coming days.

Prof Kate Ardern, director of public health for Wigan Council

“What we are currently living through are two pandemics. We are seeing infections from the delta variant, which has remained very high in Greater Manchester for the last six months. On top of that, we are starting to see the impact of the newer and much more transmissible variant omicron.”

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It is the arrival of omicron in Wigan that is giving Prof Ardern cause for concern.

Dr Sanjay AryaDr Sanjay Arya
Dr Sanjay Arya

Greater Manchester is thought to be about a week behind London, but omicron is already spreading from the south of England and rates have started to rise quickly in five of the region’s 10 boroughs.

It is a case of when - not if - the variant reaches Wigan and doing everything possible to limit its impact.

Prof Ardern said: “What we are trying to do, before we start taking off with accelerated growth, is to slow down the situation. We can’t stop omicron, but if we slow it down enough it will allow time for all the fantastic work our NHS staff are doing to get the primary course of vaccination and the boost programme out as much as possible.

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“But people have to remember it takes between seven and 14 days for a vaccine to really have its effect on your immune system. If you are already infected, you have to wait 28 days before you can get a vaccine.”

Prof Kate ArdernProf Kate Ardern
Prof Kate Ardern

She is urging people to do whatever they can to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, including “flow before you go” - take a lateral flow test before going out,

Other key advice is to wear masks in enclosed spaces, even if it is not mandatory; use hand sanitiser and wash your hands particularly after being outside; and to open doors and windows when spending time with friends and relatives.

The council’s public health staff are working over the festive period and have been busy contact tracing to help prevent the spread, particularly in high-risk settings such as care homes.

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They have reserve supplies of both LFT and PCR tests to ensure they are available for those who need them and to help keep the workforce healthy.

While some research shows omicron is milder than other strains of coronavirus, Prof Ardern warned if can still be serious for some people.

And because it is more transmissible, more people are likely to catch it and so more are likely to need hospital care.

Prof Ardern said: “I think people are exercising due caution themselves and I think people are very sensible in trying to do that, but I think we are coming into a very difficult next few weeks as omicron arrives.”

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Dr Tim Dalton, a GP and chairman of NHS Wigan Borough Clinical Commissioning Group

Staff within general practice are already very busy, but they are also preparing for an influx of patients over the coming weeks.

Dr Dalton said: “We are putting additional capacity into general practice and additional appointments are being offered during the week - day and evening - and at weekends. We are also offering, over the Christmas break, additional capacity in the out-of-hours services. There is a lot of access to general practice at the moment.”

Wiganers are being encouraged to prepare in advance for if they become ill, such as by stocking up on paracetamol and lateral flow tests and having useful phone numbers to hand.

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And there are measures people can take to reduce their chances of contracting coronavirus.

“Please do mix with family and friends, but mix with them in a socially responsible way to lessen the chance of passing infection on. Follow the measures in terms of ventilation, going outside, washing hands, wearing a face mask etc,” Dr Dalton said.

For those who do become ill, he urged them to care for themselves at home initially and go to a pharmacy, call NHS 111 or contact a GP practice before going to A&E.

As well as caring for patients through GP surgeries, staff have been busy rolling out the coronavirus vaccine and booster jab to as many people as possible.

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Everyone over the age of 18 can now have the booster jab, providing they had the second dose at least three months ago.

Take-up in Wigan has been good, with 46 per cent of all eligible adults already getting the booster and 89 per cent of over 70s.

While take-up is lower among those aged 18 to 29, they had to wait longer for the earlier doses and so may not yet be eligible for the booster.

Dr Dalton urged everyone to get either their first, second or booster jabs, including pregnant women.

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He said: “We are running clinics every day at multiple locations and we are seeing an awful lot of people. However, there is more space there. We are encouraging people to book appointments, but also turn up at centres if they are passing. There may be some wait or delay, but by and large we will be able to see people.”

Dr Sanjay Arya, consultant cardiologist and medical director at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

“This is very serious. This is sad, but unfortunately this is the reality that we are in the thick of the fifth wave of the pandemic, where the numbers are far, far higher than it has been in the last four phases of the pandemic.”

Dr Arya described the number of people contracting coronavirus across the country as “extraordinary”.

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Hospital admissions have doubled in London and NHS staff in Wigan are preparing for the rising number of omicron cases to arrive.

He said: “We have already seen some increase in hospital admissions with Covid. We are very closely monitoring patients in the hospital.

“It’s true that people are seeing initially that it will not be as severe as the other variants have been, but it is relative and people shouldn’t consider that the milder disease is not life-threatening.”

He said people with heart, lung or kidney disease, as well as elderly patients, were at particular risk.

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It comes at a time when Wigan’s hospitals are already under a lot of pressure, with winter a traditionally busy time and a backlog of patients who did not seek help or whose care was delayed due to the pandemic.

Dr Arya said: “A&E remains very busy. Our wards are nearly full and our critical care units are also experiencing intense pressure. The predications are this is going to get worse in the next few days.

“We are pleading with the Wigan people to make sure they follow infection prevention control measures, like ventilation.”

He said healthcare staff had been working non-stop for two years and were now bracing themselves for another period of huge demand.

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The hospital trust is trying to open extra beds where possible, has reconfigured services and has designated Wrightington Hospital as a “green site” without coronavirus.

Dr Arya said: “We are trying to look after the patients of Wigan who are needing life, limb and sight-saving procedures, but also trying to help neighbouring authorities with their patients.”

To help free up hospital beds, some patients who are recovering from illness are being sent home to recuperate and there are “virtual” wards where people are monitored at home.

Unfortunately, work to tackle the backlog of patients waiting for elective care may be affected, as medics will have to focus on the seriously ill patients arriving at A&E.

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And visiting has been suspended to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The spread of omicron is already leading to the absence of staff at the trust, who either have contracted the virus or have to isolate.

Dr Arya said: “Some of our staff are having to look after their family who are infected or some of them have it themselves. Hospitals have to look after seriously ill patients so we are making necessary arrangements.

“Our staff are working harder and we are absolutely reassuring our public that we have sufficient staff in the hospitals to look after patients who are acutely unwell.

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“Choose your needs carefully and leave the hospital for acutely ill patients.”

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