Warning of concurrent flu and Covid waves hitting Preston and Chorley hospitals this winter

The trust that runs the Royal Preston and Chorley and South Ribble hospitals is bracing itself for a spike in flu cases which it believes is likely to overlap with a fresh wave of Covid.
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A board meeting of Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (LTH) heard that plans were in place to manage the probable double whammy of winter pressures facing an already stretched health service.

Dr. Gerry Skailes, the organisation's medical director, said that the indications from Australia - which has now emerged from its flu season - were that infections would bounce back from the relatively low levels seen earlier in the Covid pandemic.

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Flu and Covid look set to provide a dual challenge to the NHS this autumn and winter (image: Shutterstock)Flu and Covid look set to provide a dual challenge to the NHS this autumn and winter (image: Shutterstock)
Flu and Covid look set to provide a dual challenge to the NHS this autumn and winter (image: Shutterstock)
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“[Australia] had a significant spike of flu this year and that’s almost certainly because lockdowns have been relaxed and people are going back towards their normal behaviours. Obviously, we’ve had the benefit of being forewarned that that’s very likely to be replicated in the northern hemisphere.

“We know that the flu vaccine is effective against the particular strain that was present in Australia, so the main recommendation is to ensure that as many people are vaccinated as early as possible to give themselves as much protection as possible.

“The flu vaccine is never 100 percent effective, but it does significantly reduce the chances of developing flu and developing a severe version of [it],” Dr. Skailes explained.

She added that, by late last week, a “handful” of flu cases had so far been identified amongst patients at LTH. Those individuals were then isolated during their stay, but as the number of flu patients increases, the trust will have to consider “cohorting” them together, in the same way as has traditionally been done with those suffering from Covid.

Dr. Gerry Skailes, medical director at Lancashire Teachinh Hospitals (image:  LTH)Dr. Gerry Skailes, medical director at Lancashire Teachinh Hospitals (image:  LTH)
Dr. Gerry Skailes, medical director at Lancashire Teachinh Hospitals (image: LTH)
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However, at the end of August, the government introduced new guidance which meant that asymptomatic testing of staff and patients in hospitals and some other settings was “paused”.

Dr. Skailes told the board that that move had since “significantly reduced the requirement for zoning” of Covid patients, a process which non-executive board member Jim Whitaker told the meeting had previously put a “heavy burden on the workforce and…operations”.

Patients who are symptomatic or clinically vulnerable are still tested by the trust - and anyone found to be Covid-positive and those with other other respiratory diseases are treated separately. But the end of asymptomatic testing - as suggested by the government at a time when cases were falling - means that Covid patients who are not showing any symptoms would not necessarily be identified in order to be separated from others.

The latest Office for National Statistics survey suggests Covid cases are now rising again - with 1 in 50 in England estimated to have had the virus in the week to 24th September, up from 1 in 65 over the previous seven-day timeframe.

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Dr. Skailes said that while the disease was, in general terms, “significantly less severe” than earlier in the pandemic - with fewer patients needing intensive care and fewer dying as a result of the virus - it nevertheless retained the capacity to add to the strain on the NHS.

“The likelihood is that [winter flu season] will also coincide with another Covid wave, so there’s no question the pressures that we’re currently experiencing are likely to get more significant.

“Our teams are working incredibly hard to care for patients as best we can in what will be very difficult circumstances...which are replicated across the region and across the nation, unfortunately.”

All visitors to the Royal Preston and Chorley and South Ribble Hospital are once again required to wear a surgical face mask within all ward areas, as of last month.

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Covid and flu vaccination programmes are well under way across Lancashire. Over-50s and a range of groups deemed to be at high risk will all ultimately be eligible for the autumn Covid booster jab.

Anyone who wants a flu vaccine can pay for one at a pharmacy, but many people - including all over-50s, the pregnant and those suffering from a range of health conditions - are entitled to a free jab on the NHS.