Sunderland A&E boss expects Omicron Covid wave to hit hospitals in next ‘one to three weeks’

A top A&E doctor at South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Trust is expecting the impact of the Omicron Covid-19 variant to hit the region’s hospitals starting within the next three weeks.

Dr Dave Bramley, clinical director for emergency care at the Trust, said staff were under extreme pressure already – and warned medics were planning for the wave of Omicron infections to translate to hospital admissions quicky, “depending on how quickly it spreads in our region”.

Government experts have predicted there could be more than a million positive Omicron cases by the end of December, while today saw it announced that a first patient in this country had died after contracting the variant.

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Dr Bramley told ChronicleLive how A&E – and the NHS more widely – had been facing “unprecedented pressure”, even before taking into account the future impact of Omicron, and he also urged people to get vaccinated and follow Government guidance.

He said: “If you look at just the five and a half months from July 1st and just at figures from the Sunderland emergency care department, we have seen over 7000 additional patients. That’s an additional 1,000+ patients a month we have been dealing with. That’s come in a series of peaks and – well, not troughs, because it’s never been low enough to call it a trough.

“We have frequently been seeing more than 600 patients every single day – and at times in the last few months we have seen more than 800 patients in a 24-hour period. That’s unprecedented.”

The senior medic said “significant issues” for hospitals included managing staff sickness and self-isolation and morale, and said there was “frustration” at elements of the public still not following Government guidance.

He said: “Things are really difficult. Every part of the health and care system is under pressure – our colleagues in primary care and 111 operators through to everyone in the hospitals.

“Every part of the system is more complicated with Covid involved. Social care is under real pressure at the moment and that means we are having delays in discharges.

“Some of the difficulties we are seeing in the emergency department now are that physically when our rooms are full with patients who have received emergency care but there are not enough beds in the hospital to move them out to.

“It’s very worrying, and I think it’s fair to say everyone is finding it really tough. Staff are backfilling shifts when others are self-isolating. That means picking up more shifts than usual and less rest time.”

He said, even before Omicron, with upwards of 50 Covid patients on wards across South Tyneside and Sunderland there remained a “significant extra workload”.

“We are all tired. It’s hard work and has been for a significant period of time now,” he said. “Staff are having to work extra weekends and evenings just to fill gaps in rotas.”

Dr Bramley continued by pleading with the public to follow Government guidance.

“I think there’s still a reluctance to follow the guidance by some of the public,” he added. “You only have to walk around a supermarket or a shopping centre to see a number of people still refusing to wear masks.

“And the vaccination uptake for some areas of Sunderland is very frustratingly low. We do see young people being admitted to hospital day after day with Covid which just wouldn’t be the case if they had been vaccinated. I think staff find it frustrating.”

Dr Bramley said “everyone knows the guidance well enough” and said: “People have to be honest with themselves that any social interaction has a risk attached to it. We know any social contact can boost the spread of Covid. We know with rises in the wave of Omicron only going to get worse in the coming weeks.”

He said the impact of Omicron had yet to be seen in the hospitals, but added: “It’s something we are expecting over the next one-to-three weeks. We know from the other strains of coronavirus that it takes 7-to-10 days usually for people with severe illness to require hospital treatment. Depending on how Omicron is spreading, that’s what we’re expecting.”

Dr Bramley added that plans were already in place to, if necessary, manage a surge in demand for hospital care due to Omicron. He said across the Trust, options could include opening additional dedicated Covid wards or increasing critical care capacity. He said: “This is something we have had to do before over the last two years – so we are prepared to do that should it be necessary.”

More generally, he also said it was vital to encourage people to avoid A&E “unless they have a very serious illness or injury”, and said other services – including community pharmacists, the 111 service and walk-in centres – could be more helpful to those with more minor injuries.

“Due to the demand on ED at the moment we are obviously prioritising of those who are most seriously injured or unwell,” he said. “That means that people with less serious conditions will be waiting longer than we would like. Absolutely if you arrive with a significant emergency you will be seen in a timely manner.”

Last week, North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) bosses said they were “troubled and worried” by stats showing that average ambulance “handover times have reached the highest levels recorded and continue to put significant pressure on road capacity” Accounting for handovers to A&E which took longer than 15 minutes, 2,730 hours were lost in October.

Dr Bramley said this issue was a “very serious” one, adding: “We know that when ambulances are tied up at hospitals there may be very patients at home in life-threatening conditions.

“It’s something around which we have brought in a number of initiatives around – including a consultant and nurses team to look at each ambulance as it arrives to look at moving the patients through the department rapidly to free up the ambulance crew.”

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Chronicle Live – Sunderland