Up to 36 per cent of Fylde coast hospital Covid cases were caught on the wards by patients being treated for other conditions
More than a third of Covid patients in Fylde coast hospitals caught the virus on the wards at some recent points, a Gazette investigation has revealed.
Hundreds of patients are believed to have contracted the virus while being treated for other conditions at Blackpool Victoria Hospital or Clifton Hospital in St Annes - putting them at a higher risk of dying.
Last June, just a few months into the current global crisis, medical director Dr Jim Gardner put the figure at around 100, while figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) told of another 219 hospital-acquired cases between November 2 and December 28.
In one week alone, they made up 36 per cent of new cases, with 26 out of 71 deemed to have come from inside the hospital.
The problem is hardly exclusive to the Vic, with hospitals up and down the country struggling to keep Covid at bay with existing control measures, while those infected represent a tiny percentage of the patients treated by medics, with around 16,000 admitted to the Vic in a three month period last year.
Around 29.5 per cent of the nearby Royal Preston Hospital's cases were caught on the wards from August 1 to November 29, making it one of the worst in the country.
The hospital's boss, Karen Partington, wrote to medics to tell them "we don't have the luxury of a softly, softly approach" following reports of medics going from "patient to patient without changing their apron or changing their gloves".
In an internal memo seen by The Gazette, she said: "Did you know that 30 per cent of patients who contract Covid-19 in hospital die?
"Imagine that this was someone you loved.
"Imagine that you believed that staff had not done enough to protect them.
"It doesn't bear thinking about, does it?"
Official figures show that 615 people have now died at the Vic, in Whinney Heys Road, within 28 days of a positive Covid test, although it's not known how many of those contracted the coronavirus while already in hospital.
Those with underlying health conditions and the elderly are at a higher risk of falling seriously ill or dying from the disease, which has claimed more than two million lives worldwide and infected 96 million.
NHS England and NHS Improvement promised to publish nosocomial - another term for hospital-acquired infections - transmission rates from trusts following a report which highlighted hospital hot spots for Covid-19, such as central nurses' stations and areas where computers and medical notes are shared, in October, with analysis of the data revealing that dozens of patients a day could have been catching Covid-19 in hospitals since then.
Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust twice initially refused to provide its own figures, saying they were already online.
But, following an appeal by this newspaper, a trio of experts "concluded that the information was not available via the NHS England link previously referred to" and released it yesterday.
The statistics revealed that, while community-acquired infections have made up the bulk of hospital cases throughout the pandemic, both confirmed and suspected hospital-acquired cases have been a constant threat, peaking in November amid the surge of the second wave.
From November 2 to December 28, an average of 25.9 per cent of the Vic and Clifton Hospital's cases were caught there, spiking at 36.6 per cent in the week commencing November 30.
The lowest weekly percentage of 18.1 per cent was recorded in the seven days from December 21.
In October, a report by the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) made a series of observations to help the health service reduce the spread of coronavirus in healthcare settings.
The investigation was initiated after a Sage report in May found 20 per cent of hospital patients were reporting symptoms of Covid-19 seven days following admission – suggesting that their infection may have been acquired in hospital.
There have been several local accounts of people apparently catching Covid while in hospital, including from Carleton pensioner Jean Strawford, 72.
The former showbiz talent manager, who worked alongside the late resort entertainer Joe Longthorne, is feared to have picked up the virus at Clifton Hospital.
“It was excruciating; truly horrible,” she said of fighting the infection.
“At the height of the fever I was having the worst illusions. and sending goodbye messages to my son and sister. I was completely out of myself. It was as if something had taken over my entire body and I couldn’t do anything.”
Kathryn Whitehill, principal national investigator at HSIB, said: “The spread of coronavirus in hospitals presents a risk to patient safety.
“It also puts enormous strain on the workforce and the fear of contracting Covid-19 in hospital can deter patients from attending hospital who may need urgent treatment for other conditions.”
A King's College London study published last July estimated that 12.5 per cent of Covid-positive hospital patients caught it during their stay, though it said that was a conservative estimate.
Dr Ben Carter, who was involved in the research, said we can "never truly know the true burden" of nosocomial transmission, and added: "It's impossible to have no transmission.
"When you’ve got something that’s very contagious and very rife within the population, it’s just hard to know," he told fact checking organisation Full Fact.
"There are so many factors against us.
"People don’t know they have got it, they can spread it for a long time, and at this stage [when the study was conducted in April] they weren’t being routinely tested.
"It’s just a really hard thing to determine.”
Dr Gardner said last year, when discussing the nosocomial issue, that hospitals remain the safest place to be for those who need emergency care.
Following a rise in deaths of people who stayed at home with deadly conditions because they wanted to avoid going into hospital, he said: "Unequivocally, the most dangerous thing is to stay at home if something bad is happening to you pathologically.
"We have seen some really sad cases where patients have presented late in their illness and had a bad outcome as a consequence.
“We have seen examples through our heart clinics and our stroke units in particular”, though Dr Gardner said it was not immediately possible to say just how many have died.
In response to today's figures, he added: "The wellbeing of our patients and people will always be our number one priority as a trust..
“The north west has seen some of the most sustained and highest rates of community infection across the country, and as the Office for National Statistics has made clear, when infections in the community are high NHS staff and patients are more likely to be affected.
“Trust staff rigorously follow regularly updated guidance on infection prevention and an increasing number of hospital staff are now being tested for Covid on a weekly basis.
“We are also set to introduce new rapid testing functionality at Blackpool Victoria Hospital which will allow patients to receive Covid-19 test results in less than 15 minutes, which will benefit patients by leading to an earlier diagnosis.
“The principles of hands, face, space remain so important in reducing the spread of this infection across our hospital sites and to our loved ones at home.
“Everyone has done a phenomenal job of supporting the Trust in improving patient safety, and we need to continue to build on this.”
Discussing the rapid tests, which are in their final stages of being "fast-tracked for use at the hospital's Rapid Access Testing Centre", acting pathology chief Clare Ellis said: "It is really good news for patients and it is really helpful for the trust in managing patient needs. We really hope the wards will see the benefit."
Meanwhile, some 1,297 patients have been on the waiting list for treatment at Blackpool Victoria Hospital for more than a year, figures reported by the Health Service Journal (HSJ) revealed today.
That's 6.9 per cent of the total waiting list. Nationally, more than 223,000 have been waiting for more than 12 months, up from 1,600 last February, the HSJ added.
It is thanks to our loyal readers that we can continue to provide the trusted news, analysis and insight that matters to you. For unlimited access to our unrivalled local reporting, you can take out a subscription here and help support the work of our dedicated team of reporters.