Respiratory consultant Professor Mohammed Munavvar was speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service after the number of patients in hospital with coronavirus in Central Lancashire went back above the 100 mark late last month – and reached its highest level since the peak of the original Omicron variant at the start of the year.
The even faster-spreading BA2 strain of Omicron has now pushed infection rates to record highs nationwide – so Professor Munavvar is unsurprised that there were around 110 people with Covid being treated by the trust that runs both the Royal Preston and Chorley and South Ribble Hospital at the beginning of this week.
While he says that just over half of those infected are on the wards for reasons unrelated to the virus, the presence of so many Covid-positive patients nevertheless makes the challenge of tackling the waiting list backlog even more difficult than it already is.
“Effectively, there is a crisis of bed capacity on a daily basis and that would affect the admission and care of other patients for those [delayed] procedures which we are trying to clear.
“We also have a small number of patients who are coming in rather unwell with Covid – mostly those who are unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated.
“But even if only a very small number are going into critical care or high dependency [units], it still means certain high-risk procedures need to be cancelled [because specialist beds are often needed for post-op recovery].
“Because respiratory physicians have been on the frontline of Covid management in hospital, we have also had to cancel clinics at times over the past two years. Some people have had more than one appointment cancelled, which is most unfortunate and we feel terribly sad [about that].
"Throughout the pandemic, we have prioritised patients as we don’t want to miss any patients who require more urgent tretament. We have contigency plans and are trying our best, but we are hampered by the fact we still have high staff sickness leevls because of Covid,” Professor Munavvar explained.
He also says that while the fully vaccinated are less likely to fall seriously ill, there are nevertheless good reasons for people not to abandon other pandemic precautions.
“We are seeing people with Long Covid – some of whom had mild or moderate illness [when they were infected], but end up with post-Covid symptoms. So absolutely people should carry on being cautious.
“Some of the people with Long Covid require follow-up clinics, which also takes up capacity.”
An Oxford University study published last month found that people who had tested positive for Covid – and who were receiving brain scans as part of a longstanding research project – subsequently displayed greater overall brain shrinkage than those believed to have remained virus free.
Areas of the brain linked to smell were particularly affected – while individuals who had tested positive typically achieved lower scores in mental skills tests than the uninfected. Further research will be needed to determine whether the observed brain changes are permanent.
Meanwhile, local Covid case rates published on the government’s coronavirus dashboard could become less reliable following the end of free lateral flow tests for most groups late last week.
However, the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data – based on a survey of the population – estimates that there was an all-time high of 4.9 million Covid cases across the UK in the week to 26th March. In England, 1 in 13 people were believed to have the virus during that period.
Deaths involving Covid – where it is mentioned specifically as a cause on the death certificate – are also rising, with the figure reaching 780 in the seven days to 25th March, an increase of 14 percent on the week before, according to the ONS.
However, that is only around 10 percent of the peak in Covid-related death registrations in January 2021, when the vaccination programme had not long begun.