Covid Fife: Warning as cases almost double and hospitals reach highest infection level

Health chiefs in Fife have issued a stark warning that COVID remains a serious threat to the public after the number of people with the virus in the region’s hospitals reached its highest level to date.

By Craig Smith, Local Democracy Reporter
Tuesday, 29th March 2022, 12:32 pm
Updated Tuesday, 29th March 2022, 4:56 pm

NHS Fife chief executive Carol Potter said health and social care services are under huge pressure despite restrictions easing in recent weeks, with a steep rise in COVID cases, higher-than-normal A&E attendances and staff shortages all pushing the system to near-breaking point.

A staggering 143 individuals were said to be suffering from the effects of COVID in Fife’s hospitals at the start of this week, taking up almost a third of bed capacity, while Monday saw one of the highest influxes of people attending Kirkcaldy’s emergency department ever recorded in one day.

Reported COVID-19 cases in Fife also almost doubled in the space of three weeks, with 5250 Fife resident cases in the seven days up to and including March 19 compared to just 2684 on February 28.

Warnings have been issued over the level of infections across Fife.

Vaccinations have meant the number of people in intensive care has mercifully stayed relatively low, but Ms Potter – in an update to NHS Fife board members – was keen to highlight just how precarious the current picture is.

“We’re in a really difficult situation at present across all our services,” she admitted.

“We’re two years on from the start of the pandemic and I guess there’s a sense that it might feel to society that life is getting back to normal, but it is certainly far from that for all of our services.

“Our staff continue to dig deep on a daily basis and we do know that their resilience is being stretched but, having said that, they do so with compassion and pick themselves up every single day and there’s a real concerted team effort across the system and I feel that on a daily basis in conversations with directors.

December's figures were particularly high.

“We have got high number of COVID cases in the community and that will be well understood given reports in the media.

“We’ve had increased hospital admissions, we have got high attendance in our emergency department and unfortunately we have seen in recent weeks increasing numbers of patients waiting longer than we would have wished.

“Given the prevalence of COVID in the community, and the fact that our staff are also members of the public, we’re also seeing that impacting on the level of staff absence and that is across all of our different professional groups and particularly difficult and challenging when it’s in our nursing and medical workforce.

“As a result of all of that, I’m afraid to say we’re seeing growing numbers of people waiting for outpatient appointments and the linked impact in terms of inpatient or day case treatments.”

The number of hospital cases has soared.

Noting that Fife’s COVID hospitalisation numbers have mirrored the national picture in recent weeks, as Scotland’s total of 2,360 on Monday was also a new record, she continued: “I think that really reinforces the fact that the virus has not gone away, and that’s in the context that we have somewhere in the region of 450-470 acute hospital beds, so it’s significant numbers.

“Yesterday (Monday) we saw 240 people attending our emergency department and that’s potentially the highest we’ve ever seen, or certainly one of the highest.

“All of that said, I do want to continue to offer assurance to board members that operational teams are managing these pressures and mitigating risks as far as they possibly can across all of our services.”

On a positive note, Ms Potter confirmed NHS Fife’s elective programme has continued and, albeit prioritising urgent and cancer surgery, has seen more routine surgery carried out over the last couple of months.

The health board had reached around 85% of pre-COVID activity in February, although that has fallen to about 70% in the last week due to the ongoing pressures.

COVID case numbers have also started to fall slightly in recent days, and the seven day positive case figure stood at 4986 at the start of this week – down from the 5250 recorded up to and including March 19.

Nevertheless, board members were keen to get one message across to the public.

Martin Black commented: “We need to be able to communicate that COVID has not gone away.

“What’s gone away is the restrictions and that’s creating a false narrative.

“That false narrative needs to be challenged at every opportunity.”

Joy Tomlinson, NHS Fife director of public health, added: “COVID hasn’t gone away.

“It really is circulating at very high levels in the population just now, but there’s lots of things that we’ve learned in the past two years about how people can protect themselves.

“I’d just urge continued caution, to make sure people are making best use of distancing, ventilating spaces when you are meeting together indoors, good hand hygiene.

“All of these things are things that people can do to protect themselves as much as possible.”

Despite the rise in hospitalisations, NHS Fife medical director Dr Chris McKenna was also at pains to stress the importance of vaccination – noting the numbers requiring intensive care were low as a result of the vaccine’s efficacy.

“There are large numbers, but vaccination is the precise reason why this current wave is not totally overwhelming our healthcare settings,” he concluded.

NHS Fife chair Tricia Marwick described the last few weeks as “probably the most difficult period so far” in the pandemic but paid tribute to the commitment and dedication of all staff.

“Our staff has been under extreme pressure but I would like to record my heartfelt and sincere thanks to every single person who works for NHS Fife and wider health services,” she added.