Bedford is experiencing “astonishing” levels of COVID cases with numbers reaching a record high and rates of infection rising in all age groups.
In response, Bedfordshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has suspended standard visits to all adult inpatient wards with immediate effect, except end of life patients or those patients who need a carer/support present.
Yet Bedford is still experiencing a Lateral Flow Test (LFT) shortage with deliveries promised “at any moment”, according to Ian Brown, Bedford Borough Council’s chief officer for public health.
He was responding to questions from Cllr Lucy Bywater (Green, Castle Ward) who asked about the availability of lateral flow tests at yesterday’s (Thursday) Bedford Borough Council Local Outbreak Engagement Board.
“I think we all know from friends or family that the demand [for tests] is massive and for friends who are working in health settings particularly, as they don’t seem to be prioritised,” she said.
“I have a friend who’s a nurse and she’s been asking if anyone has any spare tests, which I think is just really shocking, so do we have a sense of what’s being done about that,” she asked.
As a further example for the need for improved test availability, councillor Bywater said as immunity wanes from the booster older people in care settings who had their booster early would be especially vulnerable.
“Are our workers in healthcare settings having access to those [lateral flow] tests so they can test regularly,” she asked.
Mr Brown, replied: “Obviously, there are national constraints at the moment in terms of lateral flow test availability.
“But we are being given assurances that huge numbers are being brought into the country now, are on order, and in fact are now beginning to make their way through into local areas.
“We’re anticipating a delivery to our local teams any moment now and we’re also putting in place measures as well to help the health service as well,” he added.
Mr Brown explained that some of the new stock will be set aside so that some supplies would be available for keyworkers.
“We also have a special permission from UKSHA to use some of the tests that are normally used for the supervised testing in test centres can be distributed to health and care workers if they can’t get them any other way,” he said.
“But we’re not out of the woods yet in terms of the availability of lateral flow tests, but we are being given assurances that that situation is going to improve quite rapidly in the coming days.”
People wanting to test before Christmas and changes to the rules created a “perfect storm” in test availability, but Mr Brown said he expects it will die down a bit when everyone is back into their regular post-holiday routines.
“No doubt there’s going to be continued reliance on lateral flow tests for the near future, and we need to encourage people to keep trying as well,” he said.
“The national portal can be frustrating if there is not any availability, but actually availability is changing throughout the day.
“It’s always worth ringing around checking the pharmacies as well to see what supplies they have.
“But it’s just knowing where and when [tests are available] which is the challenge at the moment,” he said.
To find out where to get tests when they are available, head to: bedford.gov.uk/covid-19-testing.
To book free taxi rides to and from vaccination sites, head to: bedford.gov.uk/vaxicab.
COVID cases reach record highs
The meeting also heard that the overall Covid case rate in Bedford Borough is at a record high, with rates of infection rising in all age groups.
But these “astonishing” numbers are likely to be an underestimate of the actual number of Covid cases in the community due to test shortages.
Ian Brown told the board that the number of patients in Bedford Hospital has doubled in the past week.
“We’ve seen quite astonishing rises in the numbers of reported Covid cases over the last couple of weeks, with the overall seven-day rate doubling in the last 14 days,” he said.
He told the board that on Wednesday the seven-day rate was 1,680 cases per 100,000 population.
“That’s more than one and a half per cent of Bedford residents testing positive in a seven day period,” he added.
“More concerningly, we’ve seen our rate in our over 60s doubling in the last seven days, it was up to 826 per 100,000.
“[This is] obviously important because our over 60s, despite the very high rates of booster vaccinations, are still the group who are most likely to be hospitalised with Covid-19,” he said.
“On the 29th of December, which coincidentally was also our highest day last year, we had 645 positive cases, which is almost double what we saw the same time last year.
“This is likely to be an underestimate of the number of cases in the community because testing capacity is constrained at the moment across the country.
“While we have seen in the last few days the rates of growth in cases slowing slightly, I think we need to be clear that we don’t currently see the effects of New Year’s Eve mixing.
“And we also don’t yet see any effect that returning to schools may have on our cases locally or nationally.
“So I think there’s a big unknown there in terms of what direction the pandemic will take next,” he added.
The board heard that Omicron is accounting for around 95 per cent of the new cases in Bedford.
Mr Brown said that since the last board meeting there has been more information about the severity of this variant.
“We do know is that is it’s 60 to 70 per cent less likely to cause hospitalisation than Delta,” he said.
“The huge numbers of people that are being infected mean that large numbers will still require hospital treatment, and I think that already can be seen in our hospital data.”
The number of patients in Bedford Hospital had doubled in the last seven days, with 71 patients in the hospital with Covid-19 on Wednesday.
“That is the highest level that we’ve seen since the middle of February last year,” Mr Brown said.
“We do have to bear in mind those lags between getting a positive test and then being admitted to hospital and what that might mean given that our rates of infection overall and in our over 60s have doubled in the last seven days.
“We may still see another doubling of hospital admissions I suspect.
“But we’re now clear that booster vaccination against Omicron reduces the risk of hospitalisation by 88 per cent,” he added.
A spokesperson for Bedfordshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said: “As expected at this time of year, demand for our services has increased and we are currently seeing a high number of Covid-19 positive inpatients in our hospitals.
“The number of Covid-19 cases across Bedfordshire and the surrounding areas is increasing, and this is being reflected in our hospitals.
“In order to help minimise the spread of infection the Trust has made the difficult decision to suspend standard visiting to all adult inpatient wards with immediate effect. This does not apply to end of life patients or those patients who need a carer/support present.
“Anybody attending our hospital must observe our existing restrictions which include wearing surgical facemasks whilst on-site and attending your hospital appointment alone (excluding maternity, paediatric, those requiring carer support).”
by John Guinn Local Democracy Reporter
and Bedford Independent’s Paul Hutchinson