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Four Suffolk care homes report new Covid cases – how well prepared are they for a second wave?

PUBLISHED: 05:30 25 September 2020 | UPDATED: 11:54 25 September 2020

How prepared are Suffolk's care homes for a second wave of coronavirus? Top left: Health secretary Matt Hancock; bottom left, David Finch, chairman of Suffolk's association of independent care providers; bottom right, Mills Meadow in Framlingham, where one positive case has been reported Pictures: PRESS ASSOCIATION/GETTY IMAGES/CEPHAS CARE/ARCHANT

How prepared are Suffolk's care homes for a second wave of coronavirus? Top left: Health secretary Matt Hancock; bottom left, David Finch, chairman of Suffolk's association of independent care providers; bottom right, Mills Meadow in Framlingham, where one positive case has been reported Pictures: PRESS ASSOCIATION/GETTY IMAGES/CEPHAS CARE/ARCHANT

PRESS ASSOCIATION/GETTY IMAGES/CEPHAS CARE/ARCHANT

Coronavirus cases are starting to appear again in the county’s care homes – and with almost 200 deaths reported last time around, carers have been busy preparing for a second wave.

In mid-August, a grim milestone was passed with 195 coronavirus deaths recorded in the county’s care homes.

Suffolk fared worse than its neighbouring counties in terms of deaths and outbreaks.

Hundreds of patients were discharged from the region’s main hospitals without tests, and numerous homes reported shortages of PPE.

Since March, 114 (60%) of the county’s care homes have battled outbreaks, higher than the national average of 44%.

A new testing site for critical key workers - NHS staff and care staff, alongside teachers - has been set up at Martlesham Park and Ride  Picture: CHARLOTTE BONDA new testing site for critical key workers - NHS staff and care staff, alongside teachers - has been set up at Martlesham Park and Ride Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

MORE: How the coronavirus crisis unfolded in Suffolk’s care homes

The situation is different now. Just four homes have reported outbreaks as of this Tuesday, down from 24 in a single week at the height of the pandemic, though public health chiefs have started to notice a rise in cases among care staff.

A new testing site opened at the Martlesham Park and Ride for key workers on Saturday, to help give NHS and care staff access while issues with community tests persist.

Care home residents are now routinely tested every 28 days, and staff weekly. Suffolk County Council suspended routine supply from its PPE cell last week after the Government told them its national chains are now sufficient to replenish local stores.

Adult care boss Beccy Hopfensperger said the cell, a lifeline to many during the crisis, will remain stocked for emergencies. Many homes also have their own stocks, built up over the summer.

MORE: How Suffolk’s coronavirus figures compare to the last time we went into lockdown

The new testing regime, while lengthy and laborious, appears to be working well at the moment, care bosses say. It picked up a new, confirmed case of coronavirus at Mills Meadow care home in Framlingham this week – in an asymptomatic resident.

Bosses at the home, currently closed to visitors as a precaution, said the fact they found a positive case in someone who was well “demonstrates the benefits everyone is gaining through routine testing”. No-one has been taken to hospital as a result of the new case and three other residents with chest infections tested negative.

Overall hospital admissions for Covid-19 in the region remain low, with just six reported in the east as of Sunday.

MORE: ‘I was once a healthy mum… now my body is attacking itself from the inside’ - the effects of long-term covid

While it appears homes are tackling a less invisible enemy this time around, Suffolk care chief David Finch, of the county’s association of independent care providers, warned they could soon face a double whammy of flu and coronavirus.

“You’ll see the care sector begin to struggle as we go into flu season,” he said.

“Residents with flu symptoms will be reporting as Covid, and that’s the same with staff. If there isn’t robust testing, you’re suddenly going to find you’ve got 25% of the staff team in Suffolk all isolating again.

“We are told there is a flu vaccination plan in the pipeline, but we don’t actually know what it is yet. Last I heard, they were talking about going in and mass testing care homes – so all staff and residents would be tested in one go.”

NHS bosses announced on Tuesday that the jab will be offered to all health and social care workers.

Beccy Hopfensperger, cabinet member for adult care at Suffolk County Council Picture: SIMON LEE PHOTOGRAPHYBeccy Hopfensperger, cabinet member for adult care at Suffolk County Council Picture: SIMON LEE PHOTOGRAPHY

MORE: Suffolk only getting 1 in 6 pneumonia vaccines needed amid global shortage

Just last week, three of Mr Finch’s own staff had to self-isolate for more than a week after struggling to get a test at the Copdock Park and Ride Centre.

“If tests had been back within 24 hours, which the Government is saying they should be, I could have had those staff back to work. They all tested negative. They were three full-time staff, and that’s suddenly 120 hours of work a week that you’ve lost,” he added.

It is hoped the new Martlesham centre will help to plug the gaps.

Mr Finch is also concerned by the prospect of taking in Covid-19 positive patients from hospitals this time around, admitting he thinks many care homes will refuse to take them.

Health secretary and West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock claimed the Government Health secretary and West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock claimed the Government "threw a protective ring" around care homes Picture: PA / Stefan Rousseau

MORE: Calls for inquiry after hundreds of patients sent to care homes without coronavirus tests

He cited a letter leaked to ITV News from Middlesborough Council which told care homes to prepare for a second wave of virus patients, but added that in Suffolk, people are generally having tests when they leave hospital.

The national decision to discharge patients on March 17, without tests, into care homes had devastating consequences nationwide.

More than 300 patients across Suffolk and north Essex were discharged in this way, with NHS chiefs saying they followed national guidance at all times.

Mr Finch said that if homes are instructed to take Covid-19 positive patients, they will continue to isolate them under national guidance.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has previously claimed the Government “threw a protective ring” around care homes in the early stages of the pandemic.

Last week, he announced a new adult social care winter plan to support them through the season, through free PPE and a £546 million Infection Control Fund.

A new chief nurse has also been appointed to lead the social care workforce in England.

“This winter plan gives providers the certainty they need when it comes to PPE and provides additional support to help care homes to limit the movement of staff, stop the spread of coronavirus and save lives,” he said.

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