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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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Community

Extension of shuttle bus from Llanelli to vaccination centre

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HYWEL DDA University Health Board (HDUHB) has extended the free shuttle bus service between Llanelli town centre and the mass vaccination centre in Dafen to help people access their COVID-19 vaccination as easily as possible.

The shuttle bus, provided by Dolen Teifi , will continue to run between 10.30am to 4.40pm, seven days a week. Please note there will be no service at 12pm from town or at 12.15pm from the mass vaccination centre to allow the drivers a lunch break.

People can board the shuttle bus on the hour and at half-past the hour at Church Street, outside Llanelli Magistrates Court SA15 3AW. The shuttle bus will leave the mass vaccination centre quarter past and quarter to the hour, returning to the town centre and dropping passengers off opposite Llanelli library.

Bethan Lewis, Interim Assistant Director of Public Health for Hywel Dda UHB, said: “We need as many people as possible attending their COVID-19 vaccine appointments, or dropping in if eligible.

“This shuttle bus service is one of many additional resources and services being put in place across the Hywel Dda region to help support more people to receive their COVID-19 vaccination. I am pleased the shuttle bus service has been extended to help people reliant on public transport to access their COVID-19 vaccine.”

On February 21, 2022, the JCVI published a statement, recommending an additional spring booster.

Strict COVID-19 safety measures will be in place to ensure the safety of drivers and passengers on this service:

  • All passengers and drivers must wear a face covering, unless medically exempt
  • A maximum of 14 passengers will allowed per journey
  • A screen will be in place between driver and passengers
  • Passengers should only use this service if they are fit and well on the day

Before travelling without an appointment to Dafen mass vaccination centre, we advise checking the health board’s website for up-to-date information such as vaccine eligibility and drop-in opening times  https://hduhb.nhs.wales/covid19-vaccination

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COVID-19 spring booster vaccine programme begins in Hywel Dda UHB

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APPOINTMENTS for the COVID-19 spring booster vaccine have started for those who are eligible at Hywel Dda University Health Board’s mass vaccination centres and at most GP practices across Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire.

COVID-19 is more serious in older people and those with a weakened immune system. For this reason, people aged 75 years and over, those in care homes and those aged 12 years and over with a weakened immune system (as defined in table 3 and 4 of the Green Book’s chapter 14a) are being offered a spring booster.

The spring booster will be offered up until the end of June and is advised to be given around six months (and not before three months) after the last dose of vaccine was received to get the best protection.

Bethan Lewis, Interim Assistant Director of Public Health at Hywel Dda UHB, said: “The health board and participating GP practices are in the process of contacting people eligible for a spring booster of the COVID-19 vaccine. Appointments are being scheduled in line with the latest JCVI advice and in accordance with age and clinical vulnerability.

“People will be invited to attend either a mass vaccination centre or their GP practice. If your practice is participating in the vaccine rollout, they will contact you when it is your turn, so we kindly ask people to not contact their GP about the COVID-19 vaccination.

“Mass vaccination centres across Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire continue to accommodate drop-ins for everyone aged 12 and over to allow easy and flexible access to the vaccine due to increased cases of COVID in our community. Should someone eligible for a spring booster attend as a drop-in without an appointment, they won’t be turned away.”

If you have been given an appointment at a GP for your spring booster please keep to this to help minimise vaccine waste.

Bethan added: “Vaccination clinics for children aged 5 to 11 will continue while the spring booster is being rolled out. It is strictly by appointment only for this age group so please book an appointment by calling 0300 303 8322 before travelling to a vaccination centre.”

For more information about the spring booster programme in Hywel Dda UHB, including drop-in opening times, please visit hduhb.nhs.wales/covid19-vaccination or call 0300 303 8322 or complete this form https://forms.office.com/r/9kg96t6Chs 

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Community

Pupils take on ‘hat-tastic’ fundraiser for mum diagnosed with brain tumour

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Pupils get ready for Wear-A-Hat day

PUPILS at Halfway Community Primary School in Carmarthenshire are taking part in Wear A Hat Day for Brain Tumour Research after the mother of a pupil was diagnosed with the disease.

Mum-of-three, Jessica Jones, from Llanelli, was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma in 2020 after experiencing hearing loss and severe headaches the previous year.

Headteacher, Jayne Thomas has worked at Halfway Community Primary School for 25 years and said: “Jessica is a much-loved parent at the school and we really wanted to show our support for her and her family after her diagnosis and during her treatment.

“We support a lot of charities and are a family-orientated school. When Jessica told us about her brain tumour back in the first lockdown, it was absolutely heart-breaking. Her girls have been amazing throughout the whole experience. She has been incredibly brave at a difficult time, amplified because of the pandemic.”

In June 2020, the 38-year-old commercial banker went to the GP to get her hearing and headaches checked and was given migraine tablets and told to go back if the problem persisted.

Jess ready to walk

A few days later, she returned to the GP and was referred for a CT scan after an abnormally high blood pressure reading. Jessica was admitted to Prince Philip Hospital in Llanelli for further tests which revealed the devastating news she had a brain tumour, which was causing the intense pressure on her brain.

Jessica said: “I had no family with me due to COVID restrictions, just the doctor and nurse, who told me the news, as I sat on the end of the bed on my own. At that point, all you want is your family around you for support to cuddle and comfort you – I had no one.

“I had to tell my husband, family and friends over the phone. Knowing very little about acoustic neuromas, I researched more about the brain tumour whilst in hospital to prepare for what was ahead of me. Throughout the last 12 months I have always tried to remain positive but it has been an emotional rollercoaster and I have been afraid.”

In January 2021, Jessica underwent a gruelling 13-hour operation where surgeons removed a section of her skull from behind her ear, and successfully took out most of the tumour. Surgeons had to leave a small part of the tumour which had grown around the facial nerve, to avoid causing facial palsy however the procedure has left her with single-sided deafness.

Following surgery, Jessica experienced vertigo and spent two weeks in hospital, with no visitors allowed. Aside from hearing loss, acoustic neuromas and their surgical removal can cause vestibular damage, which can result in balance issues.

Simple things like standing were difficult in the first few days post-surgery, but Jessica worked with her health team at Heath Hospital in Cardiff to improve coordination of eye and head movements and balance retraining to allow her to walk.

The whole family

She said: “I was unable to stand without vomiting the first few days. Thanks to the support of the team there, I finally left the hospital after two weeks, trundling along on a Zimmer frame at the age of 37.”

Jessica’s three daughters, Ella who is nine, and five-year-old twins Emily and Lily attend Halfway Community Primary School and they, alongside 240 pupils aged three to 11, will be encouraged to wear their favourite hats and make a donation to Brain Tumour Research on Friday 25 March, as part of the charity’s iconic Wear A Hat Day event.

Jessica said: “One of the hardest parts of my hospital stay was being unable to see my husband and girls. I was really sad to miss the twins turning four at the end of January, as I was in hospital at the time. When I came home, the girls put on their nurses’ uniforms to celebrate ‘Mammy’ coming home.

“The school has been very supportive as I have undergone my treatment which has helped them and lots of the teachers supported me during my fundraising challenge too.”

Just a year after surgery, Jessica took part in the charity’s 10,000 Steps a Day in February Challenge, raising more than £3,180.

Jessica now has yearly scans to monitor what is left of her tumour and in December 2021, received news that the remainder of her tumour is stable.

Jessica’s scar post-op

Now in its 13th year, Wear A Hat Day has raised more than £2 million for Brain Tumour Research to help fund the fight against the disease. It is one of the UK’s biggest and best-loved brain tumour research awareness and fundraising days.

This year, the charity’s Wear A Hat Day pin badges have a regal theme in celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and several of the charity’s celebrity ambassadors are fronting the campaign, including TV personalities Danny Clarke and Sarah Beeny, actor and long-time supporter Dame Sheila Hancock DBE, and brain tumour survivor Caprice Bourret. Danny lost his sister to a brain tumour; Sheila’s grandson was treated for the disease when he was just four years old; Sarah was in her 20s when she lost her mum to a brain tumour; Caprice had surgery for a brain tumour six years ago. They are encouraging everyone to take part and help fund the fight against this devastating disease.

Mel Tiley, community development manager at Brain Tumour Research, said: “We’re incredibly grateful to Jessica for sharing her story with us and for her continuing support with fundraising. Jessica’s diagnosis reminds us that brain tumours are indiscriminate and can strike anyone at any time. We appreciate Halfway Community Primary School’s support and hope the children enjoy the day.”

Brain Tumour Research funds sustainable research at dedicated centres in the UK. It also campaigns for the Government and the larger cancer charities to invest more in research into brain tumours in order to speed up new treatments for patients and, ultimately, to find a cure.

The charity is the driving force behind the call for a national annual spend of £35 million in order to improve survival rates and patient outcomes in line with other cancers such as breast cancer and leukaemia and is also campaigning for greater repurposing of drugs.

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