Outbreaks of Covid-like illnesses in care homes are at their highest levels in a month, data from Public Health England show.
In the week from July 13 to 19 there were 145 outbreaks of ‘acute respiratory infections’ in homes around the country, up from 128 the week before.
An outbreak constitutes one or more people having the same symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing.
Not all of the outbreaks are confirmed coronavirus cases because the category includes any types of infections that cause coughing and infections in the airways. But many are likely to be down to Covid-19 because it isn’t flu season.
There were only 243 breakouts reported overall in that week, meaning that the care home incidents make up 60 per cent of the country’s total figure.
Outbreaks in care homes are concerning because the elderly are most at risk of dying if they catch coronavirus, and thousands of home residents have died in coronavirus outbreaks in the past four months.
Care homes have seen the highest number of Covid-like illnesses for a month, according to data from Public Health England
Some care homes have allowed relatives to visit in a drive-through setup but none have been able to let family members inside the homes for fear they would carry Covid-19 in with them (Pictured: Residents receiving outdoor visits at a home in Banbury, Oxfordshire)
Care homes haven’t seen such a high number of similar incidents since June 15-21, where there were 176 outbreaks.
Numbers dropped every week in the three weeks after that but saw a spike in the week ending July 19.
The high figures come amid fears that the Government’s decision to reopen care homes may be too hasty as they house the people who are most vulnerable to coronavirus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock gave care homes the green light to start arranging visits on Wednesday, as long as social distancing and protective equipment rules are followed.
RAPID COVID-19 TEST TO BE TRIALLED IN LONDON CARE HOMES
New Covid-19 swab tests that give a diagnosis in under an hour are being trialled in London care homes.
Queen Mary University researcherswill give the tests to up to 2,000 staff and residents in 50 care homes.
They want to see how effective rapid daily Covid-19 testing is at reducing rates of infection, hospitalisation and deaths in the sector.
At the moment, outbreak control in homes and communities is hindered by limitations in testing.
It can take days to swab a person suspected of having COVID-19, send the sample to a laboratory and receive the results.
The rapid PCR based testing system in this trial has been developed in the UK by Novacyt, and uses the Covid-19 PCR test already in use in NHS laboratories.
Residents, staff and visitors in 25 care homes will receive daily testing on the rapid testing machines which each have the capacity to process up to 100 samples a day.
Meanwhile the other 25 care homes will receive the standard central laboratory testing once a week to serve as a control group to compare the results to.
The trial team comprises researchers, medical students and laboratory experts from Queen Mary and Novacyt, who are also using a new and more convenient simple nose swab for daily testing, instead of the more common and invasive nasopharyngeal swab which involve throbbing deep at the back of the throat.
Professor Jo Martin from Queen Mary University of London who is leading the study said: ‘This work has the potential to bring a new rapid COVID-19 testing system to those at highest risk, and help interrupt community transmission.
‘If found to be successful in care homes, it could be very useful in a wide range of settings, helping to make a quick diagnosis and keep an environment free of COVID-19.
‘With rapid daily testing, we can report back to the care home on the same day, so that they can take action to reduce transmission in their care home and prevent outbreaks into the wider community. By undertaking this study in the diverse East London community, we’re hoping to protect one of the most vulnerable groups in the UK, and the frontline staff who are caring for them.’
Henry Black, chief finance officer, NHS North East London Commissioning Alliance said: ‘Working with our partners in East London we are at the forefront of detecting COVID-19 infections. Rapid testing is essential if we are to reduce transmission of the disease in social care settings.
‘The testing equipment is also portable enough to be used in community situations and we believe it will be a valuable tool in tackling any local outbreaks.’
Each resident will only be allowed a single nominated visitor, who can visit regularly as long as they book in advance and wear a mask and extra PPE if required.
The move finally brings England in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where care home visits have been allowed for weeks.
Local councils and public health officials in England will decide on a case-by-case basis which homes will be able to reopen, depending on levels of coronavirus in the area.
Charities and care providers said the move has been ‘long overdue’ and the lack of contact with families may have already caused irreparable harm to the mental and physical health of frail residents.
Mr Hancock said: ‘I know how painful it has been for those in care homes not being able to receive visits from their loved ones throughout this period.
‘We are now able to carefully and safely allow visits to care homes, which will be based on local knowledge and circumstances for each care home.
‘It is really important that we don’t undo all of the hard work of care homes over the last few months while ensuring families and friends can be safely reunited so we have put in place guidance that protects everyone.’
Local public health officials will decide whether visiting should be allowed at homes in their community, in a sign the government is moving away from its top-down approach to the crisis.
Visitors will need to wear a face covering and wash their hands thoroughly before and after putting it on and taking it off.
They will be asked to give up their contact information so they can be tracked down by NHS Test and Trace if someone tests positive in the home.
If there is a pick-up in community transmission then some visitors may need to wear extra PPE, including gloves and aprons.
Providers will decide whether visits should take place in a communal garden or outdoor area, where the fresh air and heat make it hard for the virus to spread.
It is expected care homes will tentatively start relaxing visiting rules, with family members of residents nearing the end of their life taking priority.
Charities have said the restriction on family visits has had ‘damaging consequences’ on the mental and physical health of residents with dementia.
Care homes in Wales that are virus-free have been allowing visits from relatives since June 1. Scotland followed suit on July 3, while Northern Ireland allowed visitors into its homes on July 13.
All three nations are still only allowing one single nominated visitor, which limits the number of potentially infected people bringing the disease into he homes.
Lisa Lenton, chair of Care Providers Alliance, said the measures had been ‘long overdue’ in England.
She added: ‘The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll in many ways. The effect of not being able to see friends and family has been very difficult and very upsetting for many – both for the people who access care and support, and for their loved ones who have been isolated.
‘The Care Provider Alliance welcomes this overdue guidance – the CPA has been calling for Government guidance for many weeks and released its own visitors protocol last month in its absence.
‘People need people and this is such an important step for the wellbeing of individuals and their relatives.’