Call for local testing as Northumberland sets out coronavirus outbreak plan

Health chiefs in the North East are pushing for as much Covid-19 testing as possible to take place in local NHS labs due to faster response times.

By Ben O'Connell
Friday, 10th July 2020, 6:00 am

Testing and data forms an important part of Northumberland’s local outbreak prevention and control plan, which sets out how possible outbreaks will be identified, allowing action to be taken quickly to prevent the spread of any infection and ultimately save lives.

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The latest coronavirus figures for Northumberland

A requirement for all English local authorities as of the end of June, the document was discussed by Northumberland County Council’s health and wellbeing board at its meeting on Thursday, July 9.

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Five priority areas have been identified as part of the Northumberland plan – care homes and residential settings (50 care homes in the county had outbreaks during the pandemic); schools and other educational settings; complex individuals and communities such as the homeless, and drug and alcohol service users; complex settings such as hostels, refuges, HMP Northumberland, and secure units; and workplaces and businesses.

“The plan is very much focused on prevention,” said Liz Morgan, Northumberland’s director of public health. “We are learning more about the virus every day so it’s going to need to be a dynamic document.”

David Thompson, chairman of Healthwatch Northumberland, highlighted the followin line in the plan: ‘The objective is to ensure PCR testing (antigen testing) for Covid-19 is available for all symptomatic individuals in educational settings, care homes and high-risk places and communities within 24 hours, with results available within a further 24 hours.’

“It’s an admirable objective, is it realistically achievable?” he asked.

Ms Morgan replied that it remained to be seen if those targets are achievable for the Pillar 2 data – the swab testing by commercial providers. Pillar 1 data is testing in Public Health England (PHE) labs and NHS hospitals for those with a clinical need, and health and care workers.

“The bottom line is long turnaround times for testing render the data less than useful really, because someone tested when pre-symptomatic may have become symptomatic.

“We have a regional group and it’s really pushing for all of the high-risk groups to be tested locally, because the turnaround times are quicker in our NHS labs.

“Testing is improving, but we do have a way to go.”

She added: “The important thing is to protect those who are at the highest risk, such as care homes.

“We are in a position, and have been for some time in the North East, where the testing from care homes is done in our local labs where we know the results will come back quicker.”

In relation to data, the plan also explains that a rapid data-sharing agreement between the county council and NHS Digital has been signed ‘to facilitate the provision of record-level data for residents who test positive for Covid-19’.

This will be used to monitor trends in Northumberland and, along with work by Public Health England, ‘the analysis and interpretation of this data should enable the identification of changes which will require action at a community level to prevent the transmission of infection and outbreaks’.

At the beginning of the meeting, Ms Morgan set out the current context for Northumberland.

“For us, this pandemic peaked in April and in the middle of April, we were averaging about 40 cases a day,” she said.

“That has reduced significantly to less than one case a day now. The testing rate has remained consistent over the last four weeks, so it’s not a case that we are simply testing less.

“In the peak week, we had 45 deaths where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate. The number of deaths in the second week of June is the same as we have had since the second week of June until now.

“The success of the easing of lockdown is very much dependent on the public following the rules.”

Ahead of the meeting, Coun Veronica Jones, the cabinet member for adult wellbeing and health, said: “The health and wellbeing of people across Northumberland is our absolute priority. By developing a local outbreak prevention and control plan, we can protect our communities across the county.

“The pandemic is not over and we all have a crucial role to play in fighting it. Anyone who has a cough, temperature, loss of taste or smell should get tested immediately and isolate their household. And if they test positive, they should isolate their household for 14 days.”

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