No other sector has been hit harder by coronavirus than the UK’s care sector, not just in terms of infections but by perceived political mismanagement.
Report after report details how nursing homes were put under “constant” pressure to accept patients with coronavirus – while being regularly refused treatment from hospitals and GPs for residents who became ill at the height of the Covid-19 crisis.
Recriminations over the early handling of Covid-19 will come, but what is the situation now, some six months into the pandemic?
Our county has a thriving retirement community and a wide choice of residential care facilities. You might have thought, given the foreboding media coverage, that many were overwhelmed by the pandemic, with confidence in the sector hitting rock bottom and anxiety at an all-time high.
Instead, Caring4Sussex found many homes in our county were unaffected other than having to rapidly respond to protect residents and staff. Those that were affected coped, some better than offers but in the main, well.
Indeed, scrutinising the pandemic data, Sussex – despite being home to many deemed especially vulnerable – escaped the eye of the Covid-19 storm.
The Care Quality Commission figures reflect an overall downward trend in care home COVID-19 deaths in England for the last four and a half months from a pandemic peak of 2,746 deaths which occurred in the week ending 24 April.
In total, there were 14,193 coronavirus deaths of care home residents in England between 10 April and 28 August.
The pandemic is far from over, however, and figures and data change daily. What is known is that given the nature of their services, care homes remain very much exposed.
Mike Padgham, chair of The Independent Care Group, said: “The one thing we fear more than anything else is a second wave of coronavirus, particularly as we are edging closer to autumn and winter.”
Deaths in Sussex believed to be far lower than feared
The number of Covid 19 fatalities recorded in our county’s nursing and residential has yet to be accurately counted but are believed to be well below what was initially feared.
A greater understanding of the virus and how to better treat it is helping to reduce the suffering among victims. The death rate along with hospital admissions has been decreasing since lockdown began.
At the time of going to press, there were only 764 people in hospital with Covid-19 in the UK, just 60 of whom were in intensive care – a sharp drop from a peak of 19,872 hospitalised patients on April 12.
While cases are, like the rest of Europe, rising in the UK, scientists have given an alternative view to the government’s overall doom-and-gloom position. They say younger people are driving up infections yet are less likely to fall seriously ill and be hospitalised.
For that reason, hospital cases and deaths will not necessarily follow the higher number of cases.
Nevertheless, Sussex’s residential care homes are leaving nothing to chance and have scaled up anti-Covid measures following government policy and advice.
Caring4Sussex spoke with some.
No cases at Clapham Lodge and Melrose
James and Amanda Thorns own Clapham Lodge, just outside Worthing. It has 27 residents, with plans to expand this year to 38.
They have been Covid-free throughout the pandemic.
“Our main concern was to keep our residents as comfortable and as mentally stimulated as possible,” says Amanda. “We’ve always allowed families to come to the garden to see their relatives, which has really helped them.
“We’ve coped with enough PPE – we ordered a load in right at the start of the lockdown, because we thought having never faced something like this before we’d better be prepared.”
“We do know some care homes that haven’t been able to do testing but I think it’s just problems organising test collections,” says James. “We’ve also heard that some of them have gone missing.
“Despite what you hear in the media, the industry has overall coped well, perhaps better in West and East Sussex than some counties further north.
“But counting everyone who dies if they have Covid-19 as a cause of death has been wrong, and I think the media have made everyone feel really bad.
“Care homes have been left in the dark a bit, but although it’s been pressurising, we’ve coped and our staff have been brilliant. We can’t praise them enough.”
As winter approaches, Clapham Lodge, like all care and residential homes in our county, will maintain a high degree of vigilance and deploy extra PPE procedures to ensure all are kept safe and reassured.
“We have a policy where we wear gloves and clean all the time anyway – we wear masks, even though they’re uncomfortable, and we think it will be like this for a while,” says Amanda.
At Melrose Residential Home in Worthing, there have also been no cases of the disease, although two other care homes also operated by owner Asim Chaudhary saw a handful of cases right at the beginning, three of whom sadly passed away.
Since March, however, none of the residences has had a single case.
“At the beginning, the guidelines weren’t there regarding the symptoms,” explains Asim. “We could only follow the guidelines – and Amberley was the strictest in doing this – even I wasn’t allowed in without having my temperature checked first. But we had a new resident – with no symptoms – and there was no testing at the time.
“But since then, not a single case. We work on the basis that every staff member has it so that we take the optimum care, always observing distancing, wearing masks and PPE – we had no problems getting that either, and we are going to keep that fully stocked in case there is a second wave.
The staff – none of whom have been absent – have “stuck together” and even offered to live in during the worst of it, he says.
“We haven’t had to use agencies – we’ve concentrated on our work and worked unbelievably hard,” he says. “As soon as we could, we started visits in the garden, a lot sooner than many other places. We kept giving families updates and used Ipads throughout as a vital way of keeping in touch.”
Care South has a number of residences across the south of England, including Sussexdown at Storrington.
“All of our homes remain free from Covid-19 and we have been welcoming new residents safely into our care homes through our dedicated Assisi Admission Plan, which puts extra measures in place to ensure the wellbeing of both those coming into the home and the residents already living there,” said Care South Chief Executive Simon Bird.
“Whilst the virus has had an impact on many aspects of life, Care South, and in particular our Sussexdown care home in Storrington, has adapted to the situation to create a safe haven from the virus.
“Prior to nationwide lockdown restrictions being implemented, Care South actively took steps to ensure the safety of our residents and staff, such as securing sufficient supplies of PPE, increasing infection control measures, and ensuring only essential visits took place within the care home building. Thanks to this early intervention, we have been in a position for some time now to allow relatives to visit loved ones in safe and secure areas.”
Outside care homes, it’s time to see the bigger picture.
Sussex’s largest city, Brighton and Hove, has an infection rate of 299.1 per 100,000 people – way below the national average for England, which is 513.4.
In the 24 hours between August 31 and September 1, just 26 new cases were recorded in Sussex.
As of September 1st, 641 people in Sussex had died with coronavirus with two deaths recorded between July and August – and those occurred over the bank holiday weekend.
One death was recorded by the Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton and the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath.
The other was reported at the Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which administrates Worthing Hospital, Southlands Hospital in Shoreham and St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester.