Archive for January, 2021

Can you help our COVID response?

Monday, January 25th, 2021

The headline news about the Covid Vaccination Programme is that the NHS vaccinated its 100,000th Staffordshire resident on 22 January, with 70% of care home residents and 60% of over-80s now having had their first injection. The rest of the care homes will have been covered this weekend. This is well ahead of the national rate, which is itself the leading rate among large nations worldwide. The importance of the phased approach to vaccinating sections of the population was brought home to me by a paper I read last week. Based on the evidence of the pandemic to date, one life is saved for every 20 care home residents vaccinated, compared with one every 160 over-80s, and one every 47,000 in the wider population.  With the UK taking the bold decision to go early with a mass vaccination programme, accepting that this brings supply chain constraints, it is vital to target the available vaccine at the people for whom it will have the greatest protective effect.  In essence, we are doing it in three phases: we are currently in Phase 1 where the aim is to save life; Phase 2 will protect those more likely to be hospitalised due to factors such as age, condition or employment: and Phase 3 will cover the wider population to allow society and the economy to return to normality.

Early in the pandemic, we asked for volunteers to help make sure critical services could continue in the face of rising Covid-19 cases. More than 700 of you volunteered for the iCount Campaign, which meant vital tasks, like caring for the vulnerable, could continue.  We’re calling on you again to help at this critical stage of the pandemic. The NHS will soon be rolling out mass vaccination centres in the county and is looking for our support to run the centres and to make sure priority groups get the vaccine. We also need support at our testing centres, and to identify and contact people in the care sector who are eligible for the vaccine.  Helping in these critical areas means we can test more people, make sure those who need vaccinations get them in good time and free up hospital staff with clinical experience to help in critical areas.  If you think you can spare some time to help, either inside or outside of work hours, please speak to your manager first and sign up to I Count.  For more information on the opportunities available, visit I Count on the Do It Staffordshire platform.

In closing this week, Wednesday marks the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Southern Poland in 1945, now marked as Holocaust Memorial Day.  It is of course a sombre time, commemorating an unimaginable crime, but in this sombre year, it helps me to remind myself that it was also the end of that nightmare.  I will reflect on our experience over the past year, and look to a brighter future. 

Coronavirus infection rates and the vaccination programme

Monday, January 18th, 2021

Two weeks into the third lockdown, and we’re seeing a reduction in infection rates, as we would expect, some 20-25% inside a week. There’s a clear North-South split in rates, most probably caused by the spread of the more infectious variants from the Birmingham conurbation into South Staffordshire, Cannock Chase and East Staffordshire. Prison outbreaks continue to be a concern. Although there was discussion nationally about greater measures earlier in the week, we believe locally that the key is compliance with the current rules, rather than new, more severe measures.

The more encouraging news is the progress of the vaccination programme.  In addition to the national media covered Lichfield Cathedral centre opening up, the County Council is working with the NHS and Stoke-on-Trent City Council to accelerate the programme. We have submitted a plan to move even faster, and will be presenting it to the national programme director this week. It’s a robust, resilient and deliverable plan to increase the capacity of the programme locally. The quid pro quo from the national programme would be to ‘open up the taps’ as the vaccine supply improves in the coming weeks, and giving us the freedom to operate. 

Although detailed local statistics are hard to pin down in this rapidly moving operation, it’s clear that Staffordshire is already well ahead of the national and regional averages, and of course the UK is well ahead of other countries. Huge efforts are being made to ensure that the four vulnerable cohorts identified as priorities are vaccinated as quickly as possible. This is key when one considers that 88% of Covid deaths are in these four cohorts, and I was told this week by a senior NHS colleague that it’s estimated that one life is saved for every 20 care home residents vaccinated. Although there’s clearly no 100% certainty on the effectiveness of any vaccine, and the immunity takes up to three weeks to build up, one can understand the reasoning that lies behind the pace at which this operation is running, particularly when this week carried the sad news that, on some days, 1,500 deaths were being reported nationally.    

The coronavirus vaccines

Monday, January 11th, 2021

Coronavirus continues to cause concern, with infection rates rising across Stoke and Staffordshire. We remain mainly below the England national average, but those areas bordering the Birmingham conurbation are seeing much higher rises than areas such as the Moorlands.  This would suggest that the new variants are spreading rapidly, and the combination of lockdown measures and Test and Trace are more important than ever.

The key focus this week is on accelerating the vaccination programme.  Stoke and Staffordshire are making good progress with the Pfizer vaccine. We have vaccinated 50,900 (of 128,700) of the first four cohorts identified by the Government – over 80’s, care home residents, health and care staff and clinically vulnerable. There’s another 17,000 planned for next week.  There are some areas of excellent practice such as the Stafford Primary Care Network (PCN) setting up its vaccination operation at the County Showground, where we previously ran a food distribution operation and training for iCount volunteers. They are using the large hall and the car parks to allow for a bigger service than would be expected using one of its practices. Consequently, they have vaccinated 4,180 people since the start of the programme, which is a great achievement.

We must, however, plan beyond the current challenges with the Pfizer vaccine, owing to its numbers and complex handling, and focus on full delivery of the Oxford AZ vaccine (and now we can add the Moderna vaccine to that list in the UK). We will need to see a rise from around 1,500 vaccinations per day to well over 10,000 if we are to meet the Government’s targets.  Three factors run in our favour: the Oxford AZ vaccine is more plentiful, The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have been able to reduce the Quality Assurance (QA) process from around 20 days to fpur; and its handling requirements are the same as existing vaccines, such as flu, which means we can expand existing supply chains before creating new ones.

The key to success is for the National level of the NHS to focus on getting the vaccine into the supply chain, and to leave local delivery to those who do it as a matter of course.  We have volunteered the services of Staffordshire County Council, so, all being well, we will be asking colleagues to take part in this vitally important national effort. I’ll keep you updated as we know more.

Happy New Year

Monday, January 4th, 2021

Happy New Year to you, your family and your friends. I don’t think many people are sad to see 2020 end. The toll of the pandemic has been unrelenting, both in terms of physical illness and loss of loved ones, but also mental health. It’s not over, and with the more virulent variant now spreading across the country, we are once again in Tier 4. It will be some months before the vaccination programme allows the measures to be lifted.

In Staffordshire County Council, we have managed to maintain a balance in every area for our residents and our colleagues, whether in supporting the vulnerable, maintaining our care homes, supplying personal protective equipment (PPE), supporting our schools, and more. We will continue working closely with communities, partners and individuals.

As importantly, we will plan for the return to normality, and do everything we can to ensure that it happens as quickly as possible. There are some positive experiences and learnings to be taken from our pandemic response, and we will use this to build back better.

The first, and probably most important, task for 2021 is to accelerate the vaccination programme. Two pieces of recent news make a change to how we move forward: the certification of the Oxford AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine, and the decision to focus on the first injection, leaving the second until 3-4 months after the first, rather than the initial plan of 3 weeks. The AZ vaccine is much more plentiful than the Pfizer version and much easier to handle, as it only needs refrigeration and it can be broken down into smaller batches. The Government has set a target of the end of February for all residents to have had their first injection. That is highly ambitious, and will require a step-change in delivery.  Our task, working with NHS partners, is to achieve it.

In the meantime, please continue to look after yourselves and keep doing an excellent job.