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Omicron surge leads to changes in testing in Wales

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AS OMICRON figures significantly rise throughout the country, Eluned Morgan MS, Minister for Health and Social Services, has made changes to the PCR testing system.

Those testing positive on a Lateral Flow Test (LFT) but have no symptoms will no longer be required to get a follow-up PCR test.

All four UK nations have agreed upon changes as part of a strategy to reduce the pressures on the PCR testing system and increase access to those experiencing symptoms.

Those who are asymptomatic and have a positive LFT will be required to start their isolation immediately.

Another change announced is un-vaccinated close contacts of positive cases will now be able to replace the PCR test with LFTs on day two and eight.

In a statement, Eluned Morgan said: “Wales Covid-19 testing capacity has increased significantly in NHS Wales laboratories and as part of a UK testing programme which is the biggest in Europe with almost 400 million PCR tests carried out since the start of the pandemic.

“As the omicron wave sweeps across the country demand for PCR testing has reached unprecedented levels across the UK. This has resulted in the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) constraining bookings at times to avoid exceeding the UK programme laboratory capacity and compromising turnaround times for results.

“Since Christmas Day, daily bookings at test sites across Wales have reached up to 28,000 – a record high.

“I have agreed some immediate changes to the PCR testing system that will help reduce pressure and help increase access for those who have symptoms and need to book a test.   

“The first change will mean that people who are unvaccinated contacts of positive cases and are self-isolating for 10 days should now take a lateral flow test on day two and day eight instead of a PCR test. This will help to increase PCR testing capacity.  This change will come into effect immediately.

“Secondly, together with the other UK nations, we have agreed that if a person showing no symptoms has a positive lateral flow test they will no longer be advised to have a follow-up PCR test to confirm the result, unless they are in a clinically vulnerable group, which may need early access to treatment or have been advised to do so as part of a research or surveillance programme.

“As the prevalence of coronavirus is above 1%, the risk of false positives from lateral flow devices decreases. This means there is less value in having a follow-up PCR test to confirm the result. At higher prevalence levels, data suggests that lateral flow tests and PCRs have a similar positive predictive value.

“This change will come into effect from 6 January and we estimate it will reduce the demand for PCR tests by between 5% and 15%.

“Without a follow up PCR tests it is even more important for people to report the result of every lateral flow test they do and self-isolate as soon as they test positive. Without reporting, contact tracing will not be possible, nor will advice and support be provided by the system.

“We need everyone to continue to play their part in disrupting the transmission of Covid-19 by reporting their lateral flow test results on the gov.uk website or by calling 119.

“Positive results from lateral flow tests already flow into the Wales contact tracing system to speed up the contact and support required to help all those who need to self-isolate.

“NHS and social care staff access testing from our NHS Wales laboratories. We may need to introduce further changes to protect PCR tests for key workers through the UK testing programme if demand continues to grow in the coming days and weeks.

“We may also need to introduce other temporary emergency interventions for non-vulnerable symptomatic individuals to manage demand and safeguard capacity to find the cases most likely to result in harm.

“We recognise these changes will potentially increase demand for lateral flow tests. There are no current issues with supplies but we are aware of issues with distribution for people to access tests at some collection points including pharmacies.  UKHSA manage the logistics and deliveries across the UK and we are working closely with them to improve the situation. More than 4 million tests were distributed to workplaces, people’s homes and collection points in Wales last week.”

Commenting, Welsh Conservative and Shadow Health Minister Russell George MS said: “This change is welcome on two fronts: firstly, it will preserve an increasingly precious supply of PCR tests and, secondly, preserves consistency across the United Kingdom.

“Of course, testing itself merely identifies carriers of the virus but won’t beat it. We can only do that through vaccinations and everyone who is eligible should be taking up their booster jab at the earliest opportunity.

“Soon, we will be able to live with the virus rather than just talk about returning to the freedom that is the birth-right of all Brits.”

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Health

Hywel Dda Health Board confirms Bank holiday arrangements

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FOLLOWING confirmation that Monday, 19 September, will be a Bank Holiday to mark the Queen’s State Funeral, the Health Board is contacting all patients to confirm or re-arrange their appointments, depending on service availability. Whilst all emergency services will be operating as normal, we need to adjust some elements of our planned care services and prioritise patients with urgent care needs wherever possible.

Our Chemotherapy Units will be operating as normal on Monday and some surgery for urgent cases will take place at our hospitals.

Where appointments need to be re-scheduled, patients are being contacted over the coming days by the relevant team to re-arrange their appointment as quickly as possible. In some cases, this may mean bringing appointments forward to this week. Some face-to-face outpatient appointments will still go ahead, and some may be held as an online/virtual appointment on Monday.

If you have an appointment on Monday, and have not been contacted by 1pm on Friday, please contact the health board’s communication hub on 0300 3038322 or email ask.hdd@wales.nhs.uk for further information and guidance. Staff at the communication hub are available to answer calls between 10am-4pm on Saturday, and 10am-3pm on Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday. We are contacting all patients by telephone or text message, please check your telephone for any messages.

As GP surgeries and most Community Pharmacies and Dental services will be closed on Monday, a Bank Holiday out of hours service will be provided. Individuals requiring repeat prescriptions are encouraged to arrange them in advance.

All urgent and emergency care services will continue as normal. If you are unwell and unsure what to do, you can visit the online symptom checker or call NHS 111. The Minor Injury Units at acute hospital sites will be open as usual. Opening hours for community walk-in services can be found on the health board’s website. Please attend an Emergency Department, or call 999, if you have a life-threatening illness or serious injury, such as: 

Severe breathing difficulties 

  • Severe pain or bleeding 
  • Chest pain or a suspected stroke 
  • Serious trauma injuries (e.g. from a car crash)

We apologise for any inconvenience caused and thank you for your support and patience.

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Health

Autumn Covid-19 booster roll-out begins today in Wales

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THE ROLL-out of the autumn Covid-19 booster has started today (September 1) in Wales with care home residents and staff across Wales the first to receive the vaccine.

Everyone who is eligible for the autumn booster will be invited for a vaccination by their health boards. Invitations will be issued in order of vulnerability, with everyone eligible being offered a booster vaccine by December.

The vaccine will help support the immunity of all those who are at higher risk from COVID-19, improving their protection against severe illness, while also helping to support the NHS during winter 2022-23.

This autumn, in line with advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine booster will be offered to:

  • Residents in a care home for older adults and staff working in care homes for older adults
  • Frontline health and social care workers
  • All adults aged 50 years and over
  • People aged five to 49 years who are in a clinical risk group
  • People aged five to 49 years who are household contacts of people who are  immunosuppression
  • People aged 16 to49 who are carers.

In line with advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), eligible adults aged 18 and over will initially be offered the Moderna vaccine which protects from both the original strain of coronavirus and the Omicron variant. Those eligible aged under 18 will be offered the Pfizer vaccine. Both vaccines will be offered at least three months after a previous dose.

The vaccines will be administered in a variety of settings including GP surgeries and vaccination centres.

The winter respiratory vaccination strategy will ensure all those eligible for the autumn booster are also protected from seasonal flu – people are being encouraged to take up the flu vaccine when offered. All those eligible for a flu vaccine will be offered it before the end of the year.

Health Minister Eluned Morgan said: “Our winter respiratory vaccination programme will help protect the most vulnerable in our communities from flu and coronavirus this winter.  The COVID-19 booster campaign will start with those in care homes, alongside those working within the NHS and the social care sector.

“Vaccines have had an enormous impact on the course of the pandemic – they have saved countless lives and given us the freedom and confidence to restart our lives.

“I want to thank everyone working in the NHS and other organisations who will once again lead efforts to protect the most vulnerable through vaccination.

“This year, we will  once again offer an expanded flu programme, with 1.5 million people being eligible for a free vaccine.

I would encourage anyone who is eligible to take up their invitation to help themselves.

“All eligible adults will be invited for their autumn COVID-19 booster via letter and text message from their health board by December and I would ask people not to contact their GPs about their invite so they can continue to focus on looking after people’s health.”

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Health

Mask wearing reinstated at Prince Philip Hospital

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ALL staff and visitors to Prince Philip Hospital must wear face masks (unless exempt) with immediate effect following the latest review of prevalence of COVID-19 in the community, Hywel Dda University Health Board (UHB) has confirmed.

This follows the decisions made last week to reinstate mask wearing at Glangwili Hospital and both mask wearing and visiting restrictions at Withybush Hospital.

Visiting will continue in general at Glangwili and Prince Philip hospitals following the latest review of case numbers but local ward restrictions are in place so please contact the ward to arrange your visit in advance.

Mandy Rayani, Director of Nursing, Quality and Patient Experience for Hywel Dda UHB, said: “Wearing a surgical mask or face covering and keeping a physical distance when attending a hospital or medical facility will help protect our most vulnerable patients and service users.  

We are grateful for the ongoing support and efforts of our communities to stop the spread, particularly around more vulnerable people.

“These measures will be continually reviewed, and as soon as it is safe to do so, we will ease these restrictions.”

The health board is stressing the continued importance of the behaviours known to reduce transmission of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, and the different requirements in place in health and social care settings.

Mandy, added: “Isolating if we have symptoms of COVID-19, or other infectious diseases, is one of the most important things we can do to prevent the onward spread and break the chain of transmission.

“We strongly encourage anyone in our locality who has the classic symptoms, or who suspects they may have COVID-19 to isolate and take an LFD test. If positive, we urge people to continue with the same isolation guidance that has been in place – this will help you to rest and recover and protect others from risk of transmission.”

The following measures remain in place at Withybush hospital sites (updated 5PM, Tuesday 12 July 2022):

All staff and visitors to Withybush Hospital to wear masks (unless exempt).

Visiting to inpatients/wards is paused, except for end-of-life visits and any visits considered necessary through agreement with the ward sister/charge nurse.

People attending an outpatient appointment are asked to attend alone unless they require the support of a carer/relative.

Testing of all inpatients on admission.

Maternity visiting remains unchanged. A designated birth partner can visit following admission to hospital during pregnancy, throughout labour and following birth. A designated partner can attend antenatal appointments or scans.

The Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Sir Frank Atherton reminded people to follow simple steps to protect themselves from the risk of catching COVID-19 such as getting vaccinated, wearing face coverings in crowded indoor settings, and taking a lateral flow test if you have symptoms.

The Welsh Government has extended the availability of free lateral flow testing for members of the public until the end of July. Visit www.gov.uk and search ‘order rapid lateral flow kit.’

If you, or someone you care for is not online you can telephone 119 between the hours of 7am and 11pm (people with hearing or speech difficulties can call 18001 119).  

Later this week, the Welsh Government will update its vaccine strategy with details of the next booster dose in the autumn.

Sir Frank said: “The vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. While the vaccine does not completely stop transmission it offers protection against serious illness and reduces the risk of hospitalisation.

“You can still get the vaccine if you haven’t had your full course, or you were too ill to get your spring booster and I would encourage parents to think about getting the vaccine for their children over the summer months to help minimise any disruption to their education during the autumn and winter terms.”

To book a vaccine appointment, call 0300 303 8322 or email COVIDEnquiries.hdd@wales.nhs.uk and for up-to-date information regarding visiting and mask wearing please visit the health board’s website http://hduhb.nhs.wales 

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