Health officials 'keeping sharp eye' on small rises in Covid cases

Louise Smith, director of public health in Norfolk. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

Dr Louise Smith, director of public health for Norfolk - Credit: Archant

Norfolk's health chief says teams are "keeping a sharp eye" on coronavirus cases as the infection rate shows signs of creeping up again.

Dr Louise Smith, the county's director of public health, said case rates were no longer decreasing, adding that Norfolk "could be on the edge of a change". 

Lateral flow testing involves taking a mouth and nasal swab to see whether coronavirus is present in the body

Thousands in Norfolk have been taking part in rapid testing - Credit: Suffolk County Council

The current rate in Norfolk is 38.7 cases per 100,000 people, up from 34 a week ago. 

But Dr Smith emphasised that an increase in testing, thousands of which have been carried out in schools, was "bound to pick up more cases". 

And, while admitting all pupils returning to school will have contributed to the spread, she said a discernible change in the data had been detected before March 8.

"Our rate is much lower than it was but, over the last few days, that has stabilised and some areas are going up slightly," said Dr Smith. 

"The speed at which things are coming down has slowed and we are not reducing any longer, so we are working to keep a sharp eye on that.

Secondary students will have initial Covid tests in school before home testing. 

Covid testing has been taking place in Norfolk's schools - Credit: PA

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"We are constantly monitoring not just the numbers, but the percentage change. That has been negative since January 11, and so we have seen a steady drop somewhere between 10 and 40pc per week. 

"But from around March 10, we are no longer seeing negative falls. It is much more like zero, which points towards numbers potentially starting to go up. It feels to me like we could be on the edge of a change.

"When we look at the data, the change precedes schools going back. That will have contributed because we are doing more testing, so we are bound to more cases and that is a good thing.

"But there is a message, as we start to ease out of lockdown and people are out more: this disease has not gone away."

Dr Smith gave her assessment on a range topics as she discussed the current coronavirus picture in Norfolk. 

Dr Louise Smith said the coronavirus risk for Norfolk was 'very low'. Picture: Norfolk County Counci

Dr Louise Smith said the coronavirus risk for Norfolk was 'very low'. Picture: Norfolk County Council - Credit: Archant

The situation in schools

Dr Smith said public health officials were aware of about 20 active outbreaks in schools, which means there is more than one case.

There are around 70 'situations' across the county, denoting just a single case. 

"The outbreaks are pretty evenly spread across Norfolk," added Dr Smith.

"What's really heartening is the number of situations, because that might be a sign that the testing we are doing is picking cases up before there is a chance for the virus to spread."

On restrictions easing 

Lockdown rules are due to ease on March 29, allowing two households or six people to meet outdoors. 

The 'stay at home' order will be lifted and outdoor sports will be permitted to resume. 

Asked whether it is the right time for restrictions to be relaxed, Dr Smith said: "The evidence shows it is safer to meet outdoors than indoors, and therefore it is a logical next step. 

"The additional risk of being outside with other people is fairly low. 

"The combination of the current data and the small step of meeting outdoors feels on track."

Prime minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown just days after the chaotic January return to school. 

Prime minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown just days after the chaotic January return to school. - Credit: PA

On the situation in Norfolk's hospitals

The latest data shows there were just 29 patients with covid-19 in Norfolk's hospitals on March 16, down from 44 a week ago and the lowest since October.

At the pandemic's peak, around 800 people had been admitted. 

"The number in hospital with covid has come down massively," said Dr Smith. 

"That is the main thing that plays into these decisions about coming out of lockdown - not just the number of cases, but how serious they are. 

Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. NNUH

Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. NNUH - Credit: Nick Butcher

"The government has clearly said that the criteria will be based on the pressure on the NHS, as well as the ongoing rollout of the vaccine and whether there are any new variants."

Was the South African variant identified in Diss and Roydon?

Surge testing took place in a specific area of south Norfolk after a handful of cases of the South African strain were identified

Around 7,500 people were tested, 51 of which returned positive results.

However, it is not yet known whether any were cases of the variant. 

A mass COVID testing centre at Diss Leisure Centre. Picture: Danielle Booden

A surge COVID testing centre at Diss Leisure Centre - Credit: Danielle Booden

"We are pretty much at a final position on the total number of cases, but we don't yet have the data to tell us whether any are the South Africa strain," said Dr Smith. 

"We might find one or two, but it is not going to be all of them by any means.

"NHS Test and Trace have not identified the variant yet. If we found one, we would contact the people concerned, but we will not be telling everybody their results."

Have any other strains been detected in Norfolk?

"There are no other variants cropping up in Norfolk.

Norwich, is one of three areas in Norfolk which has seen a fall in the coronavirus infection rate wi

Norwich, is one of three areas in Norfolk which has seen a fall in the coronavirus infection rate within the last week.. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

"Water companies are now working with Test and Trace to survey waste water, and there will be more genetic testing of the cases we find. 

"That's how we're going to be looking for new variants."

How is rapid testing going?

Dr Smith said more than 100 businesses and organisations in Norfolk are now signed up to the rapid testing programme, giving 7,000 people access to twice-weekly testing.

Another 100 or so are set to join in the coming days, taking the total number of workers being regularly tested to between 15,000 and 20,000. 

Coronavirus testing centre. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Coronavirus testing centre. - Credit: PA

"Anybody can have a test and we have five district teams up and running," said Dr Smith.

"It is an online booking system but there are plenty of available slots. We are also working towards getting some mobile teams on buses out from next week."

Changes to contact tracing 

This week saw contract tracing in Norfolk switch from the hands of NHS Test and Trace to the county council. 

It means local, rather than national workers, now have the job of tracing the contacts of someone who has tested positive for the virus and telling them they need to self-isolate.

"We now have access to the national set of results and are seeing all positive cases from our area immediately," added Dr Smith. 

"Approaches now are likely to be done by someone with local knowledge. The advantage is that we are able to get in touch with people more quickly and piece things together with local information."

On a year of covid

Last week marked a year since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global pandemic due to a rapidly increasing number of cases.

On Tuesday, March 23, it will be 12 months since the UK was plunged into its first nationwide lockdown. 

King's Lynn high street

King's Lynn High Street has been almost deserted throughout lockdown - Credit: Chris Bishop

"It has been a year like no other," added Dr Smith.

"On Tuesday, a national day of reflection will be a time for us to remember all of those who have been affected.

"Norfolk has been impacted like the rest of England and sadly we have seen a significant number of people die. We are realising the long-term impact of long covid as well, which is disabling many people.

"I do think we reasons to be positive. Case numbers are coming down, we know far more about the virus, we can access testing and we are seeing success in the rollout of the vaccination programme.

"I hope the worst is behind us, but I am sure we will still be living with covid for some time to come."

On Friday afternoon, it was announced by the government that the latest R-value was between 0.6 and 0.9, with the number of new infections shrinking by between 3 and 6pc every day.