Even more patients expected by busy NHS staff this winter in Wigan

Health chiefs are gearing up for a surge in the number of patients with respiratory illnesses as the cold winter months approach.

While there are usually more patients with conditions such as pneumonia in the winter, medics are expecting to treat even more this year, alongside those continuing to contract coronavirus.

It comes after a busy 18 months for hard-pressed staff, who have been working non-stop during the pandemic and taking little time off to recuperates themselves.

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Dr Sanjay Arya, medical director and consultant cardiologist at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, expects to see a “significant” number of patients with respiratory illnesses in coming months.

Dr Tim Dalton

He said: “We know that winter will bring in patients with Covid, but also other infections which are seen during the winter months, including this RSV which is forecast to infect a large number of people.”

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, but it can be serious for some people, including children and the elderly.

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It comes as the hospital continues to see patients with coronavirus, although fewer than before.

Dr Arya said: “We are continuing to get some Covid patients, unfortunately some ill enough be to taken to the critical care unit. Sadly, despite the advances in treatments of Covid, we have had some more deaths. Certainly there are a lot less than there were in the first, second and the beginning of the third phase of the pandemic.

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“One thing which we have seen is patients who have not taken the vaccine and sadly getting Covid, and they are not only getting Covid, but some are getting very seriously ill so they are coming into the hospital and into the critical care unit.”

Dr Arya urged people who have not yet been vaccinated to get the jab and for those eligible to now receive the booster dose.

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There has been a high take-up of the vaccination among the hospital trust’s staff, he said, and they are now getting the booster so they can continue caring for patients.

Staff are now also receiving the flu jab and other preparations are being made for winter, including the opening of an enhanced respiratory care unit to support patients.

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It is a busy time for hospital workers as they are also working to clear the backlog of patients waiting for surgery, which was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Arya said: “The number of patients who are now getting the procedures done is far more than when we started a few months ago. Unfortunately, due to the staffing levels due to Covid patients still being admitted to the hospital, we are not able to do as many as we did pre-Covid, but we are reaching pre-Covid levels gradually.

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“I request people waiting for any procedure or surgery to bear with us. We are reviewing patients’ case notes, we are talking to patients and we are prioritising patients depending on their needs.

“If they are not well, obviously they should contact 111 in the first instance.”

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Wigan Infirmary’s A&E department is also busy, having seen record numbers of patients in recent months.

Bosses are making sure there are enough staff on the frontline to care for them and the number of beds in the hospital is being increased.

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A “virtual” ward is also being created, where patients can be cared for at home using monitoring equipment and regular phone calls from healthcare staff.

Dr Arya urged people to only go to A&E for treatment if they are in an emergency condition or have been in an accident, so staff can care for those who really need them.

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Patients in a less serious condition are encouraged to call 111, see their pharmacist or GP, or go to Leigh Walk-In Centre, for example.

It is not just hospital staff looking to the winter months, with GPs also expecting to see even more patients.

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Dr Tim Dalton, a GP and chairman of NHS Wigan Borough Clinical Commissioning Group, said: “GP practices are extremely busy at the moment and I expect they will get busier. They are around 20 per cent busier than I would expect at this moment.

“They are also seeing patients quicker than usual and seeing huge numbers of people face-to-face. They are open and seeing people and bringing people in to see them face-to-face where appropriate after seeing people remotely.”

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He said around 60 per cent of patients were being seen in face-to-face appointments, while others were given advice remotely.

But those staff seeing people in person do face additional risks, with Dr Dalton speaking out against the verbal abuse and even threats of violence they are receiving.

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Health chiefs across the borough joined forces last week to condemn this after staff at a GP surgery in Manchester were reported to have been assaulted last month.

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Dr Dalton said: “The vast majority of the Wigan population absolutely recognises how hard everyone is working across health and care.

“There is, sadly, a very small minority who understandably will have frustrations, because of how busy health and care is. They are waiting for their assessments or operations or treatments and instead of raising these concerns using the normal measures, by talking to their clinicians or going through the complaints process, they are becoming increasingly agitated. That’s from angry conversations at the reception desks through to threats of violence and, as we have seen in Manchester, actual violence breaking out.”

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He said surgeries would not tolerate abuse and staff were doing their best to support patients.

There are several reasons why so many people are now making appointments.

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Dr Dalton said: “There are a lot more respiratory illnesses around that we would expect for this time of year.

“There are then backlog pressures from the last 18 months to two years that we are responding to. People are more poorly because they have waited and are potentially presenting later than expected.

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“There is then the knock-on effect for society. People are tired, they have not had the holidays and breaks they would expect, so their personal resilience is at a level that would not normally be the case.”

Dr Dalton said GPs were doing what they could to support patients and prevent them being admitted to hospital.

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He urged people to look after each other, particularly as society emerges from the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and to continue with infection control measures where possible, such as wearing face coverings and using hand sanitiser, to stop the spread of coronavirus and other illnesses.

He also appealed for people to do their bit to help the NHS this winter by staying as fit as possible, eating well and living a healthy lifestyle.

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He suggested that people stock up on remedies for coughs, colds and other common illnesses, look out for their relatives and neighbours, and get vaccinated against coronavirus and flu.

Dr Dalton said: “If you do become poorly, it’s really important to think early about what you will do. Keep yourself at home to isolate, make sure you drink plenty of fluids and use those home remedies you have got.”

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He also suggested having a PCR test as soon as possible.

Dr Dalton said: “Covid is probably changing how it presents, so if you have any sort of respiratory illness, I would urge you to have a Covid test.”

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He suggested people receive informal support from their family and friends, as well as contacting their pharmacy or NHS111,as alternatives to seeing a GP.

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