The county’s NHS chiefs are braced for further increases following the ending of restrictions on socialising and face coverings, particularly with most people aged up to 24 unvaccinated.
But families can also take heart from the high levels of protection, particularly among the most vulnerable, with almost 90 per cent of first jabs now administered in Northumberland
That said, potential visitors to the county have been urged to ‘Live It, Love It and Leave it unspoilt’, while those already living there asked to stay ‘cautious’ over the coming weeks.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Liz Morgan, Northumberland County Council’s director of public health, and Richard Hay Richard Hay, head of planning and operations at Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), outlined the current situation in the county, and what they expect from the rest of the summer.
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Drop in the number of Covid cases in Northumberland
What is the current picture for vaccinations and case numbers?
Liz Morgan: It looks as though the rate at which cases are increasing is slowing down, although it’s still early days.
A few weeks ago, we were seeing cases more than doubling over a seven-day period, whereas our most recent data suggests it’s increasing by less than 10 per cent.
But because the case numbers are so high, that still represents a lot of cases and some areas have seen higher rates than others.
The numbers do fluctuate, one week Haltwhistle has the highest rates, the next it’s Bedlington.
At the moment, between one-in-five and one-in-six people who are tested using PCR are testing positive – that’s the highest it’s been, but we know there are many more people in our community who have the infection.
Richard Hay: We have now delivered 243,649 first doses and 205,061 second doses to Northumberland residents.
At least 89.1 per cent of adults (over 18) in Northumberland have now received a first dose, the best percentage uptake for any Upper Tier Local Authority (UTLA) area in England.
And 75 per cent of adults have received two doses, the second best percentage uptake for a UTLA in England, so our Northumberland residents are amongst some of the very best protected people in the whole of England against COVID-19.
Over 73 per cent of 18-29-year-olds have received their first dose, which is fantastic, and we would continue to urge as many young people as possible to take up the opportunity of vaccination as soon as possible – not only to protect themselves, but also to help protect others in the families, friendship groups and communities.
What’s behind the rise in case numbers in the county?
Liz Morgan: Case rates have increased across all age groups since early June, but this is really being fuelled by younger age groups and we’re still seeing the highest rates in 17/18 years olds – over one in 50 are testing positive at the moment.
Cases have also increased at a rate of knots in 19-24-year-olds and younger teenagers.
This isn’t surprising given that we have a dominant variant that is highly transmissible and that these are the age groups which either haven’t been (and won’t be) offered the vaccine, or who have only been offered it relatively recently.
They’re also the age groups who are likely to socialise the most.
We’ve also seen restrictions easing in May and I suspect the Euros will have had an impact on transmission.
Are you expecting more rises as a result of ‘Freedom Day’?
Liz Morgan: The modelling data is suggesting that cases will continue to rise as we move along the roadmap.
But the four-week delay has meant that more people have had the chance to be fully and partially vaccinated and that will have had an impact.
Even though we have a fantastic vaccination programme, rising cases presents us with a number of risks, such as:
An increase in hospitalisations and deaths; Workforce absences because of infection or the need to self-isolate as a close contact or to undertake caring activities (especially in critical services like health and social care); An increased risk of new variants emerging.
We’re also likely to see more ‘long Covid’ and this is a very real risk to younger age groups, which we know can be extremely debilitating – preventing them from working; affecting their ability to do normal day to day activities and preventing them from being able to take advantage of the fewer restrictions in place because they’re just not well enough to take part.
What can I do to stop the spread?
Liz Morgan: What happens in the next few weeks and months is very much in our hands.
We can contain this wave and minimise its impact if we continue to take a cautious approach and keep doing those simple things that work to prevent transmission.
Take up the offer of the vaccine, book an appointment and remember to go back for the second one to gain the most benefit.
Try and follow the ‘Hands, Face, Space’ and fresh air principles as much as possible.
And while wearing a face covering isn’t now mandatory, I’d strongly recommend we all continue to use them in crowded public spaces including public transport.
Some people are really anxious about going out and about because face coverings are no longer mandatory.
I don’t want these residents to continue to be isolated just because the people around them aren’t wearing face coverings.
It’s such a simple thing we can all do, and it doesn’t really impact on us that much but it does help to protect other people.
What new advice is the CCG offering health care settings/providers about social distancing and masks?
Richard Hay: Health and care settings will continue to maintain appropriate infection prevention and control processes to minimise the risk of transmission of COVID-19 and other infections.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not over by any means and, in line with Government guidance, everyone accessing or visiting our healthcare settings must continue to wear a face covering, unless they are exempt, and follow social distancing rules.
This applies to all health services including hospitals, GP practices, dentists, optometrists and pharmacies, to ensure patients and staff are protected.
The NHS remains ‘open for business’ and staff are here to see you safely.
We are asking everybody to please be patient when you contact the NHS.
Staff are being affected by self-isolation (as well as the general public) and this can affect the numbers of staff available, which can put extra pressure on your local NHS services.
What advice would you give to anyone living in Northumberland making plans for the summer, or for anyone planning to visit the county?
Liz Morgan: We’re very much open for business and welcome visitors to this fantastic county.
We also want it to stay that way, so we’re asking visitors to ‘Live It, Love It and Leave it unspoilt’.
From a Covid angle, the advice is simple and it is the same whether you’re lucky enough to live here or whether you’re just visiting:
Be cautious – the pandemic is not over, so continue to wash hands; wear face coverings; keep your distance and meet outdoors when you can, to help to prevent the virus spreading; Be considerate – choose to wear a face covering indoors, particularly in crowded areas and on public transport, to protect others, including the frontline workers we all rely on; Be kind – many people still feel anxious about changes to restrictions so please be mindful that others may still want to distance and wear face coverings.