The number of patients in hospital with norovirus has jumped by nearly a tenth in a week, as health chief warns the winter bug is piling pressure on the NHS.
People suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea took up 371 beds per day, on average, in hospitals across England last week — up 7.8 per cent from 344 one week ago and twice as high as levels seen at the same time last year.
NHS bosses warned the health service remains under ‘significant pressure’, with illnesses including norovirus poses ‘a very real concern’. Experts warn the influx in norovirus ‘couldn’t come at a worse time’ for the health service.
However, NHS data shows that its winter crisis is fizzling out, with ambulance performance last week reaching its best level this winter, while flu patient numbers continued to dwindle.
Data from the UK Health Security Agency today showed there were 441 cases of norovirus detected in England the first two weeks of 2023. The figure is 37 per cent higher than the 321 reports expected for this time of year, based on the pre-pandemic five-year average
What is norovirus?
Norovirus, the winter vomiting bug, is a stomach bug that causes vomiting and diarrhoea.
It usually goes away in around two days.
The main symptoms are nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting. Some people also have a high temperature, a headache and aching arms and legs.
Symptoms usually start one or two days after being infected.
People can usually manage their symptoms at home. The NHS recommends drinking lots of fluids and avoiding dehydration.
The virus is spread through close contact with someone with the virus, or eating food that has been prepared by them.
It can also be passed on by touching objects that are contaminated with the virus and then touching your mouth.
Dr Simon Clarke, an Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading told Mail Online: ‘Good hand hygiene and not putting your fingers in your mouth are really important to reduce chances getting norovirus’.
He added: ‘Nobody knows whether the last person to touch a door handle or lift a petrol pump, unwittingly deposited something unpleasant which could make you sick.’
NHS data shows norovirus patient numbers rose to 382 on January 23.
While the figure is up on compared to one week earlier, it is still well below this winter’s peak of 488 on January 5. And norovirus patient levels have been higher on 17 days so far this winter.
The stomach bug, which causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, usually goes away on its own within two to three days.
Sufferers, who may also experience a fever, headache and aching arms and legs, are advised to stay at home until 48 hours after their symptoms have stopped.
Rest and having lots of fluid are recommended by health chiefs.
However, in severe cases, some people may need to be hospitalised. The elderly and children are most at-risk of norovirus complications, such as vomiting for more than three days, bloody diarrhoea for more than one week and dehydration.
The bug is spread through close contact with someone who is infected, touching surfaces or objects that have the virus on them, and then touching the mouth, as well as eating food that’s been handled by someone with norovirus.
Regular hand washing is the best way to stop the spread.
Separate data from the UK Health Security Agency today showed there were 441 cases of norovirus detected in England the first two weeks of 2023.
The figure is 37 per cent higher than the 321 reports expected for this time of year, based on the pre-pandemic five-year average.
Most cases were among the over-65s, according to the UKHSA.
Overall this winter, there has been 2,876 laboratory confirmed norovirus cases — four per cent higher than expected.
Its data is based on positive laboratory reports and NHS hospitals reporting suspected and confirmed norovirus outbreaks. Actual case numbers will be even higher.
Norovirus levels have been low since March 2020 — when the nation was plunged into the first Covid lockdown. Restrictions to limit the spread of the pandemic virus also halted the spread of other seasonal viruses.
The prevalence of norovirus was low throughout winter 2020/21 and had still not returned to usual levels in 2021/2022, according to UKHSA data.
Norovirus activity will likely remain unusual throughout this winter, the agency said.
However, a mutant strain is unlikely to be behind the rise in reported cases, as the dominant strain of the virus is the same as that which was circulating last year.
Experts say Covid restrictions could be partly to blame for the current surge, as fewer people have been exposed to norovirus than usual since the pandemic began.
As a result, people may be less well-equipped to fight off the infection, according to their theory.
Latest NHS England data shows just one in five ambulances (20.2 per cent) were delayed by 30 minutes or more when handing over patients to A&E in the week to January 22 — the lowest level seen this winter (red line)
Just 5,121 ambulances (6.6 per cent) queued for 60 minutes or more before handing over patients in the week to January 22 — another winter low. A peak of 18,720 was logged in at the end of last year
An average of 2,034 flu patients were in England’s hospitals in the week to January 22, down 40 per cent in a week and a drop of two thirds from the week to January 1, when cases were at their highest
NHS staff absences in England fell to a record low on January 22, with around 47,000 off sick — down from a peak of more than 66,000 on December 21
Dr Quinton Fivelman, chief scientific officer at London Medical Laboratory, warned the uptick in norovirus has come when the health service is already crippled.
He said: ‘The obvious concern is that the NHS has no spare capacity to deal with a further epidemic this winter, on top of Covid, flu and Strep A outbreaks.
‘With industrial action in the health service set to escalate, increasing cases of norovirus couldn’t come at a worse time.’
He added: ‘Rather than any new variant, the main reason for this month’s spike in cases is likely to be that immunity against norovirus is fairly short-lived and during the pandemic fewer people were exposed to the virus than normal.
‘Now everyone is mixing again, cases are increasing. This virus spreads very easily and quickly, more so than the other viruses causing illness this winter.’
It comes as the NHS winter crisis, which has seen patients face record waits for 999 crews and hospitals tackle a flu-nami.
An average of 2,034 flu patients were in hospital beds each day last week, down 40 per cent in a week and a drop of two thirds from the week to January 1, when cases were at their highest.
There was an average of 141 flu patients in critical care beds last week, down from 220 one week earlier and 336 at the start of the year.
The sharp drop in flu levels comes after a surge in cases in the run-up to Christmas, which health experts described as the worst flu season for a decade.
Alongside flu, the NHS has battled ambulance delays, bed shortages, delayed discharges of medically fit patients and a fresh wave of Covid infections.
Latest ambulance data shows just one in five ambulances (20.2 per cent) were delayed by 30 minutes or more when handing over patients to A&E.
It marks the lowest figure recorded this winter. In the final week of 2022, the figure high a record high of 43.7 per cent.
And just 5,121 ambulances (6.6 per cent) queued for 60 minutes or more — another winter low. A peak of 18,720 was logged in at the end of last year.
Delays can occur due to A&E units being overwhelmed by a lot of ambulances at once, as well as a lack of space inside hospitals, partly down to bed-blockers.
As a result, 999 callers are forced to wait longer for ambulances, as they are stuck in hospital queues instead of responding to incoming calls.
On top of this, the number of people in hospital with Covid is still falling. It peaked at 9,535 on December 29 and on January 18 hit 6,299 — down by a third.
However, the NHS warns that bed occupancy remains high, with 95.1 per cent of beds occupied.
And there are still 13,566 patients, on average, taking up hospital beds each day who are medically fit to discharge — so-called bed blockers.
Professor Julian Redhead, NHS England’s clinical director for urgent and emergency care, said: ‘These new figures show that while there have been improvements in ambulance handovers and fewer flu patients in hospital, the NHS remains under significant pressure.
‘Last week saw more people being taken to A&E by ambulance, bed occupancy is still constrained, and illnesses like flu and norovirus are still a very real concern.’
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