Tag: Covid-19

Patient outcomes following emergency admission to hospital for COVID-19 compared with influenza

Our recent study in the journal Thorax examined patient outcomes following emergency admission to hospital for COVID-19 compared with influenza. We used routinely collected primary and secondary care data. Outcomes, measured for 90 days follow-up after discharge were length of stay in hospital, mortality, emergency readmission and primary care activity.

The study included 5132 patients admitted to hospital as an emergency, with COVID-19 and influenza cohorts comprising 3799 and 1333 patients respectively. Patients in the COVID-19 cohort were more likely to stay in hospital longer than 10 days (OR 3.91, 95% CI 3.14 to 4.65); and more likely to die in hospital (OR 11.85, 95% CI 8.58 to 16.86) and within 90 days of discharge (OR 7.92, 95% CI 6.20 to 10.25). For those who survived, rates of emergency readmission within 90 days were comparable between COVID-19 and influenza cohorts (OR 1.07, 95% CI 0.89 to 1.29), while primary care activity was greater among the COVID-19 cohort (incidence rate ratio 1.30, 95% CI 1.23 to 1.37).

We concluded that patients admitted for COVID-19 were more likely to die, more likely to stay in hospital for over 10 days and interact more with primary care after discharge, than patients admitted for influenza. However, readmission rates were similar for both groups. These findings, while situated in the context of the first wave of COVID-19, with the associated pressures on the health system, can inform health service planning for subsequent waves of COVID-19, and show that patients with COVID-19 interact more with healthcare services as well as having poorer outcomes than those with influenza.

The findings relate to 2020, a period before Covid-19 vaccination began and when different variants of SARS-CoV-2 were circulating in the UK. We aim to update the analysis to see how Covid-19 outcomes have changed since that period compared to outcomes from influenza.

Covid-19 rates are increasing again in the UK – What does the public need to know?

Why are so many people coming down with Covid again?

The current wave of Covid-19 infections is being caused by highly infectious subvariants (BA.4 and BA.5) of the Omicron variant that entered the UK in late 2021. These subvariants are more infectious than the previous variants of the coronavirus that the UK has faced. They are also more likely to cause reinfections. Other factors increasing the number of infections include greater mixing of people now that Covid-19 measures in the UK have ended and reduced protection from infection from vaccines because many people are more than six months since their last Covid-19 vaccination.

Are the new variants worse than the other variants?

Although they are more infectious than other variants, the new subvariants of Omicron do not cause more severe disease and on average, they probably cause a milder illness. However, because of the very large number of infections caused by these subvariants, some people will have a serious illness with a risk of being admitted to hospital or dying. The good news though is that vaccines still work very well at reducing the risk of serious illness and death. The number of deaths from Covid-19 in England is very low due to this protection given by vaccines.

How bad could this new wave get?

We will see a further increase in cases and hospitalisations during July. After July, we should see a decline in both cases and hospitalisations as we saw with the previous two Omicron waves in January and April. Although we will see additional pressures on the NHS, the number of deaths will remain much lower than in January 2021 when deaths from Covid-19 in the UK peaked.

Could any restrictions be brought back and if so, what?

It’s very unlikely the government will bring in any new legal restrictions but they may offer public health advice on the use of face masks in indoor settings and the importance of good ventilation in reducing the risk of infection. They will also encourage people to take up the offer of Covid-19 vaccination if they are eligible for a booster or have not yet had a full course of vaccines.

Wasn’t the colder season the worst time for Covid? How come it’s now spreading in the hot weather?

Respiratory infections are usually worse in winter when the weather is colder and people spend more times indoors. With Covid-19, however, we have seen new virus variants emerge that are highly infectious and which can increase the number of infections, including in the summer.

If I’ve already had Covid this year am I just as likely to catch this new variant, or if I do might the symptoms be milder?

People who have already had an infection this year are less likely to get a second infection. If they do get a second infection, it is likely to be milder, particularly if they are fully vaccinated. However, for some people, a second infection can be more severe than their first infection.

How could the new Covid surge affect the summer holidays?

The UK government has no plans to introduce restrictions on travel or requirements for Covid-19 testing like those we saw in previous years. However, if there is a large increase in the number of Covid-19 infections, it is possible some countries may introduce new measures. However, at this point, I would say this is unlikely to happen.

Will they bring back airport testing, and if not how easily could we catch Covid if there are positive people on the flight?

There are no plans to bring back Covid-19 testing before flights. It’s unlikely this will happen in the UK unless the number of serious Covid-19 cases become so high, the NHS is unable to cope. The best way to prevent this from happening is for everyone to be fully vaccinated. The risks of catching Covid-19 are probably higher in crowded airport terminals than on an airplane because of the ventilation and air filtration systems that modern airplanes use. If people are unwell, they should avoid travelling so that they do not infect others.

I’m back to working next to others in a busy office. What precautions should I take?

Try to ensure that the room is well ventilated. Ideally, everyone in the office should be fully vaccinated. You can also wear a face mask (preferably an FFP2 mask that provides better protection). If anyone is unwell with a possible Covid-19 infection, they should stay at home and not come into work. Employers have a duty of care to their staff and should not ask employees to come to work if they are unwell and may pass on a Covid-19 infection to others.

Am I still protected by the vaccine and booster?

If you are fully vaccinated, including with a booster, you are still very well protected against serious illness and death, although you can still be infected. When another booster is offered in the Autumn, you should take up this offer if you are in an eligible group.

When will another booster be available for people under 75 and will it be updated to protect against the new variant?

Another Covid-19 vaccine booster will be available in the Autumn. This will be offered to people living in care home for older adults and their staff. Frontline health and social care workers and people aged 65 years and over will also be eligible for a booster in the Autumn. Some adults aged 16 to 64 years who are in a clinical risk group will also be eligible for a booster but the government has not yet confirmed what medical conditions will make people eligible. There are now updated vaccines being tested that target Omicron. The government has not yet approved these updated vaccines for use in the UK but if the results from clinical studies are good, it’s very likely these vaccines will be offered in place of the original vaccines for the Autumn booster programme.

Why is there talk of an even worst Covid wave in the Autumn? What might happen?

We had a very high number of hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19 in the winter of 2020-21. In the winter of 2021-22, thanks to vaccines, the number of hospitalisations and deaths was much lower. It’s very likely that the UK will experience another wave of Covid-19 in the Autumn and Winter when the weather is cooler and people spend more time indoors. This increase in Covid-19 cases may occur at the same time as a large flu epidemic. To reduce the impact of flu and Covid-19 on people’s health and the NHS, it’s essential that eligible people take up the offer of a flu vaccine and that as many people as possible are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, including with any boosters that are offered later this year.

A version of this article was first published in the Daily Mirror.

Impact of COVID-19 on primary care contacts with children and young people in England

During the COVID-19 pandemic, health systems globally shifted towards treating COVID-19 infection in adults and minimising use of health services for other patients, including children and young people (CYP), who were less susceptible to severe COVID-19. In March 2020, the NHS recommended remote triaging before any face-to-face contact to reduce infection risk.

The UK Government announced a nationwide lockdown in England from 23 March 2020, and the public was advised to stay at home to limit transmission of COVID-19 and avoid strain on health resources. GPs were asked to prioritise consultations for urgent and serious conditions, and suspend routine appointments for planned or preventive care.

Children’s access to primary care is highly sensitive to health system changes. We examined the impact of COVID-19 on GP contacts with children and young people (CYP) in England. We used a longitudinal trends analysis was undertaken using electronic health records from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD) database.

GP contacts fell 41% during the first lockdown compared with previous years. Children aged 1–14 years had greater falls in total contacts (≥50%) compared with infants and those aged 15–24 years. Face-to-face contacts fell by 88%, with the greatest falls occurring among children aged 1–14 years (>90%). Remote contacts more than doubled, increasing most in infants (over 2.5-fold). Total contacts for respiratory illnesses fell by 74% whereas contacts for common non-transmissible conditions shifted largely to remote contacts, mitigating the total fall (31%).

In conclusion, CYP’s contact with GPs fell, particularly for face-to-face assessments. This may be explained by a lower incidence of respiratory illnesses because of fewer social contacts; changing health-seeking behaviour; or a combination of both. The large shift to remote contacts mitigated total falls in contacts for some age groups and for common non-transmissible conditions.

The study can be read in the British Journal of General Practice.

Long term implications of Covid-19 in pregnancy

An article published in the BMJ by Allyah Abbas-Hanif, Neena Modi and myself discusses the long term implications of Covid-19 in pregnancy. Covid-19 in pregnancy increases the risk of severe complications for both mother and baby. The long term implications are unknown, but emerging signals warn of substantial public health threats. To counter high vaccine hesitancy in pregnancy we must end the default exclusion of pregnant women from the rigorous regulated drug development process and implement systematic, long term, population-wide surveillance of infected and non-infected people.

The full article can be read in the British Medical Journal.

The future of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK – the essential role for vaccination

Thanks to Covid-19 vaccination, we have seen a substantial weakening of the link between Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations / deaths in the UK. But we don’t yet know how well this protection from serious illness and death will persist in the longer-term. We are also seeing “vaccine fatigue” set in with many people not keen on booster vaccines.

For the UK, the future challenges will include determining how frequently and in what groups Covid-19 booster vaccines are needed; ensuring a high take-up of vaccinations in all eligible groups; and having vaccines that are updated when necessary to protect against new variants. We have already had one additional booster vaccination programme in the UK this year; which targeted people 75 and over, residents of care homes, and people who are immunocompromised. A larger booster programme is planned for later this year that will target a wider range of people, including NHS staff.

Although some people are very optimistic about the future because of the recent decline in the number of Covid-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths in the UK, this optimism does depend on maintaining high levels of Covid-19 immunity in the population. This won’t be easy and we will see some areas of the UK and some population groups with low take-up of booster vaccines. We therefore need to ensure that we have a strong vaccine delivery system in place that can work with local communities to ensure a high-take up of vaccination – particularly in the most clinically vulnerable groups at highest risk of serious illness and death.

Other Covid-19 control measures are also important and can be implemented when necessary, but ultimately it is vaccination that will allow UK society to function normally rather than these other measures.

General practitioner perceptions of using virtual primary care during the COVID-19 pandemic

Whether it be a simple telephone call or more sophisticated video conferencing systems, virtual care tools have been in use in primary care settings worldwide in one form or another throughout the past two decades. Over time, these tools have grown in availability, matured in their capabilities, but played a largely supportive role as an alternative option to traditional face-to-face consultations. This all changed in early 2020 with the onset of the COVID_19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique opportunity globally which put virtual care tools at the forefront of primary care delivery. The need for social distancing to limit disease transmission resulted in virtual care tools becoming the primary means with which to continue providing primary care services. Hence, our study’s goal was to capture the spectrum of GP experiences using virtual care tools during the initial months of the pandemic so as to better understand the perceived benefits and challenges, and explore what changes are needed to allow them to reach their fullest potential.

We carried out a global study to investigate this further, published in the journal PLOS Digital Health. We received 1,605 responses from 20 countries globally. Our results demonstrated that virtual care tools were beneficial in limiting COVID-19 transmission, improved convenience when communicating with patients, and encouraged the further adoption of virtual care tools in primary care. Challenges included patients’ preferences for face-to-face consultations, digital exclusion of certain populations, diagnostic challenges associated with the inability to perform physical examinations, and their general unsuitability for certain types of consultations. Practical challenges such as higher workloads, payment issues, and technical difficulties were also reported.

Learning from this global natural experiment is critical to both updating existing and introducing new health technology policies concerning virtual primary care. Doing so will be imperative to supporting and promoting the better use of these novel technologies in our evolving healthcare milieu.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pdig.0000029

Data from the NHS is playing a key role in guiding vaccination policies globally

Throughout the pandemic, the UK’s covid-19 data systems have been guiding global as well as local policies. The well-established health information systems combined with the more recently established National Immunisation Management System in England provided timely information on infections, emergence of new variants, and the value of different interventions. But one of the most important contributions from the UK came from the ability to rapidly track vaccine effectiveness.

Vaccination is the best method for societies to reduce the severity of illness and number of deaths from covid-19; and to start to return to a more normal way of living, working, and studying.[1] But vaccination programmes need to be evidence-based, so that vaccines and healthcare resources are used appropriately, and there is equitable vaccine delivery. The covid-19 pandemic has shown the importance of data from medical records and the National Immunisation Management System in guiding national vaccination policies. Clinical trials can provide initial data on the efficacy and safety of vaccines. However, because of their relatively small size and short duration of follow-up, they cannot provide longer-term data on vaccine effectiveness or on rare adverse events.[2] Furthermore, because covid-19 vaccines were designed to target the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, the trials are also unable to provide data on protection against new variants that emerged after the trials were completed. Nor were they able to provide data on the need for booster doses of vaccines to maintain protection from serious illness and death.

Clinical trials are also generally unable to provide data on smaller subgroups of the population such as people who are immunocompromised; or how different vaccines compare in their long-term safety and effectiveness. This data has to largely come from national immunisation systems and from medical records, as does data on vaccine uptake in different groups of the population. These are areas where the UK has excelled during the covid-19 pandemic in work led by government organisations such as the UK Health Security Agency and the UK Office for National Statistics.

In England, the UK Health Security Agency has assessed vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic covid-19 infection using community testing data linked to vaccination data from the National Immunisation Management System (NIMS); with further linkage to data from electronic NHS secondary care datasets;  sequencing and genomics data; travel information; and mortality records. These data have allowed analysis of how well covid-19 vaccines protect against outcomes such as hospitalisation and death as well as against symptomatic infection during the course of the pandemic.[3] With the linkage of secondary care datasets and NIMS data, it has also allowed for timely epidemiological safety signal assessments to be rapidly carried out in response to passive reports of adverse events after vaccination from the MHRA yellow card system. The large size of the English population allows for more precise estimation of these effects; something that is not always possible in data from countries with smaller health systems. Data from the UK also allowed identification of people at highest risk from the complications of covid-19, which helped in deciding which groups would be prioritised for vaccination. UK data also allowed the tracking of breakthrough infections following vaccination better than any other country; and confirmed that delaying the second dose of vaccine was likely to lead to better protection from serious illness.

Most recently, the data has allowed analysis of how well vaccines protect against new variants of SARS-CoV-2 such delta and omicron. The latest data confirm that three doses of vaccines provide good protection from hospitalisation and death from an omicron infection; but that the level of protection is not as high as against the delta variant that was previously predominant in many parts of the world. [4] Protection against infection is also less against newer variants than against the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, which meant that breakthrough infections in vaccinated people were common, particularly at times when community infection rates are high.[4] The data also show that longer-term protection is better with the mRNA vaccines in use in the UK (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) than with the AstraZeneca viral vector vaccine. Ongoing work will show how well this protection from serious illness and death is maintained; and whether further booster doses may be needed in the population more widely after the implementation of a fourth dose in older people and the clinically vulnerable.[5] In addition, epidemiological assessments of safety signals will continue to support and maintain confidence in the covid-19 vaccine programme.

Other data can be linked to the NIMS to allow estimation of vaccine uptake by age group, area of England and by ethnic group. This has proved essential in identifying population groups and geographical areas with lower than average vaccine uptake. For example, the data has shown that vaccine uptake is generally lower in younger age groups than among older people; and lower in large, urban areas such as London than in other parts of England.[6] The development of a public-facing “data dashboard” has allowed easy viewing of this data at national, local and regional level; thereby supporting public health teams to identify areas and communities with lower vaccine uptake.[7]

Looking forward, it is important that we maintain our data collection, linkage, analysis and publication abilities for the longer-term.[8] Although we must now all learn to live with covid-19, SARS-CoV-2 will still pose a threat to global health for some time, especially if new escape variants emerge.[9] Furthermore, with population-level immunity after vaccination waning and covid-19 control measures ending, there is a risk that later in the year we may see a surge in infections in the UK and elsewhere; in recent weeks, we have already seen an increase in covid-19 infections and hospital admissions in the UK. In addition, changes in testing behaviour and guidance may affect how vaccine effectiveness is monitored in the future. The data systems, scope for data linkage, and the analytical capacity in the UK will prove essential in tackling the long-term threat to global public health from covid-19; and lessons from the UK’s data systems should continue to be shared with the rest of the world to support the global response to covid-19.[10]

Azeem Majeed, Elise Tessier, Julia Stowe, Ali Mokdad

A version of this article was first published in the British Medical Journal.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o839 

References

  1. Majeed A, Molokhia M. Vaccinating the UK against covid-19. BMJ. 2020 Nov 30;371:m4654. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m4654.
  2. Majeed A, Papaluca M, Molokhia M. Assessing the long-term safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2021;114(7):337-340.
  3. Monitoring reports of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccination.https://www.gov.uk/guidance/monitoring-reports-of-the-effectiveness-of-covid-19-vaccination
  4. Andrews N, Stowe J, Kirsebom F, et al. Covid-19 Vaccine Effectiveness against the Omicron (B.1.1.529) Variant. N Engl J Med. 2022 Mar 2. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa2119451.
  5. Walker P, David N. UK: over-75s and vulnerable people to be offered additional Covid booster jab.https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/feb/21/uk-older-vulnerable-people-to-be-offered-covid-booster-vaccine
  6. Office for National Statistics. Coronavirus (COVID-19) latest insights: Vaccines.https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/articles/coronaviruscovid19latestinsights/vaccines
  7. Official UK government website for data and insights on coronavirus (COVID-19).https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/
  8. Tapper J. Dismay as funding for UK’s ‘world-beating’ Covid trackers is axed.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/12/dismay-as-funding-for-uks-world-beating-covid-trackers-is-axed
  9. Murray CH, Mokdad AH. After the Mandates End. Preparing for the next COVID-19 variant.https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/after-mandates-end
  10. Dowd JB. The UK’s covid-19 data collection has been “world beating”—let’s not throw it away. BMJ 2022; 376 :o496.

Testing NHS Staff for Covid-19

There was no mention from the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in his speech on Wednesday 23 March 2022 about the continued funding of Covid-19 testing for NHS staff in England. We need the government to clarify this urgently and confirm whether twice weekly testing of healthcare workers will continue or stop in April 2022.

Under current guidance, NHS staff are required to test for Covid-19 twice weekly and report their results before coming to work. If testing is to continue from April onwards, then the NHS will have to find this funding from its existing budgets, reducing funding for other areas of care.

There has been discussion about staff paying for their own testing. My view is that if testing is required by NHS employers, they will need to fund the tests. Staff cannot be asked to fund their own tests if this is a condition of their employment.

Ending regular Covid-19 testing of NHS will increase the risk of infection spreading to vulnerable patients. But there are also costs associated with testing and we need a robust assessment of the evidence on which to base future testing policy for NHS staff.

Protecting yourself from Covid-19

The recent increase in Covid-19 rates in the UK is concerning although, to some extent, an increase in rates was expected now that control measures have ended in England, with the other three UK countries also ending most control measures as well.

We are also seeing signs of increased NHS pressures with more presentations of people with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 in primary care and hospital admissions increasing. The number of NHS staff off work due to Covid-19 is also adding to NHS pressures.

A key message for the public is that vaccination is essential. Many people have not come forwards for a booster vaccine, particularly in London and other large cities. Three doses of vaccine are essential to reduce the risks of serious illness and death from Covid-19.

A second booster programme is also now starting for the most vulnerable people in our society: people aged 75 years and over this living in care home and people who are immunocompromised. The additional booster will provide these people with greater protection from serious illness and death.

I also advise people to continue to wear a mask (preferably a FFP2 mask) when in shops and on public transport. People should also continue to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid-19 to reduce the risks of infection to others.

Given that infection rates are increasing again, people who are clinically vulnerable through age or their medical history need to be cautious about entering places where there is a high-risk of infection (i.e. crowded, indoor venues with poor ventilation).

The government should also continue with PCR testing for people with symptoms of a possible Covid-19 infection and not scale back testing as it seems to be planning from April onwards. Unfortunately, there is no easy way out of the pandemic and testing along with good infection control measures remain essential.

Why should I other getting a Covid-19 vaccine booster?

I have much bigger healthcare concerns than getting COVID-19, and the NHS doesn’t help me with them. Why should I bother to help them by getting this vaccine?

This is a question that some people often ask. By getting the Covid-19 vaccine, you are protecting yourself as well as reducing pressures on the NHS. Over 10 billion Covid-19 vaccines have been giving globally; and they have proven to be very safe and effective. The number of Covid-19 cases in the UK remains very high. Vaccines are protecting us and without them, we would be seeing many more people who are seriously ill or dying from Covid-19.

By getting vaccinated against Covid-19, you are substantially reducing your risk of a serious illness that may lead to you requiring hospital treatment or even dying. Even if you don’t need hospital treatment, Covid-19 can still be an unpleasant illness that can make you unwell for a few weeks or leave you with long-term complications.

The risks from Covid-19 are particularly high in those who are over 50 years of age, obese or who have underlying medical problems such as diabetes or kidney disease. Vaccination reduces all these risks to you. Furthermore, if too many people remain unvaccinated, this will increase the likelihood of the government having to introduce measures to control the spread of Covid-19 and reduce pressures on the NHS. This could mean, for example, bringing in restrictions on people attending large, indoor gatherings – or closing pubs, night clubs and restaurants – like the measures we have seen at times over the last two years.

It could even lead to another lockdown if pressures on the NHS were very high. These measures have had a big impact on people’s social lives and mental health, as well as on the economy, and we don’t want to see them brought back.

Finally, many countries across the world are now requiring proof of vaccination for tourists and visitors. If you are not vaccinated, you will find it difficult to visit these countries, thereby limiting your leisure opportunities or the chance to meet friends and family living overseas. So by getting vaccinated, you are not only helping the NHS. You are also helping yourself.