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Covid-19 news: Hospitals in England declare critical incidents

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A man passes a temporary ‘Nightingale’ field hospital constructed in south London, England, 3 January 2022.

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Latest coronavirus news as of 12pm on 4 January

Staff shortages force health service providers to enact emergency measures

At least six National Health Service trusts in England have declared critical incidents as a result of staff shortages caused by covid-19.

A critical incident means that the healthcare providers believe they may no longer be able to provide a range of critical services, and the status enables them to call for help from staff and other organisations. University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay and United Lincolnshire Hospitals are among the trusts implementing emergency measures.

The chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, wrote in a blogpost that many parts of the health service are currently in “a state of crisis”, while community and social care services are at “breaking point”. 

On a visit to a vaccination centre in Buckinghamshire yesterday, Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said: “I think we’ve got to recognise that the pressure on our NHS, on our hospitals, is going to be considerable in the course of the next couple of weeks, and maybe more.”

Meanwhile, as children return to schools today, the government has recommended the wearing of face masks in secondary classrooms in England, as is already advised in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Head teachers have warned that high levels of staff absences could lead to children being sent home to learn remotely.

Other coronavirus news

Covid-19 cases may have plateaued in London and could start to fall in other parts of the UK within 3 weeks, an epidemiologist and government adviser has said. Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that infection rates in the capital appear to be stabilising in the 18 to 50 age group, which has been driving the omicron epidemic. 

“With an epidemic which has been spreading so quickly and reaching such high numbers, it can’t sustain those numbers forever, so we would expect to see case numbers start to come down in the next week; [they] may be already coming down in London, but in other regions a week to 3 weeks,” he said.

“Whether they then drop precipitously, or we see a pattern a bit like we saw with delta back in July of an initial drop and then quite a high plateau, remains to be seen. It’s just too difficult to interpret current mixing trends and what the effect of opening schools again will be.”

In the US, thousands of schools have delayed the start of term or switched to remote learning amid surging cases caused by the omicron variant. New York City’s mayor has vowed to keep schools open despite soaring infection rates, in contrast to cities such as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit. Nationwide, the number of patients in hospital with covid-19 increased by 40 per cent in the past week, according to Reuters.

The US Food and Drug Administration has authorised a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be given to children aged 12 to 15. A panel advising the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will now decide whether to recommend booster shots in this age group.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Two years of covid-19: What we’ve learned during the pandemic so far

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Where did coronavirus come from? And other covid-19 questions answered

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Covid-19 vaccines: Everything you need to know about the leading shots

Long covid: Do I have it, how long will it last and can we treat it?

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Covid-19: The story of a pandemic

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New Scientist Weekly features updates and analysis on the latest developments in the covid-19 pandemic. Our podcast sees expert journalists from the magazine discuss the biggest science stories to hit the headlines each week – from technology and space, to health and the environment.

The Jump is a BBC Radio 4 series exploring how viruses can cross from animals into humans to cause pandemics. The first episode examines the origins of the covid-19 pandemic.

Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour? is a BBC documentary, which investigates what the high covid-19 death rates in ethnic minority patients reveal about health inequality in the UK.

Panorama: The Race for a Vaccine is a BBC documentary about the inside story of the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against covid-19.

Race Against the Virus: Hunt for a Vaccine is a Channel 4 documentary which tells the story of the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of the scientists on the frontline.

The New York Times is assessing the progress in development of potential drug treatments for covid-19, and ranking them for effectiveness and safety.

Humans of COVID-19 is a project highlighting the experiences of key workers on the frontline in the fight against coronavirus in the UK, through social media.

Belly Mujinga: Searching for the Truth is a BBC Panorama investigation of the death of transport worker Belly Mujinga from covid-19, following reports she had been coughed and spat on by a customer at London’s Victoria Station.

Coronavirus, Explained on Netflix is a short documentary series examining the coronavirus pandemic, the efforts to fight it and ways to manage its mental health toll.

COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One by Debora Mackenzie is about how the pandemic happened and why it will happen again if we don’t do things differently in future.

The Rules of Contagion is about the new science of contagion and the surprising ways it shapes our lives and behaviour. The author, Adam Kucharski, is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and in the book he examines how diseases spread and why they stop.

Previous updates

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A soldier administers a vaccination at the Army Reserve Centre in Poole, England.

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24 December

Our daily covid-19 update will resume on 4 January

Immunity offered by vaccines wanes more quickly with omicron, finds UK study

The protection conferred by booster vaccines against the omicron variant begins to wane within 10 weeks, according to a briefing released by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

Based on an analysis of 147,597 delta and 68,489 omicron cases, the agency found that the Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are less effective against omicron than delta. For people who had two initial doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the UKHSA estimates that Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna boosters are around 60 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infections from omicron 2 to 4 weeks after the third dose, but this falls to 35 to 45 per cent by 10 weeks. For those who had two initial doses of Pfizer/BioNTech, protection falls from 70 per cent at 2 to 4 weeks to 45 per cent at 10 weeks after a Pfizer booster, but stays around 70 to 75 per cent up to 9 weeks after a Moderna booster.

The UKHSA report also estimates that someone infected with omicron is 50 to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital, compared with delta. This is based on a preliminary analysis of 114,144 omicron cases and 461,772 delta cases occurring between 22 November and 19 December. The difference is somewhat larger than suggested by a study published by Imperial College London on Wednesday, which reported a 15 to 20 per cent lower risk.

However, modelling suggests that the severity of omicron would need to be around 90 per cent lower to avoid similar levels of hospital admissions to previous waves, according to minutes from a meeting of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on Monday.

“What we have got now is a really fine balance between something that looks like a lower risk of hospitalisation – which is great news – but equally a highly transmissible variant and one that we know evades some of our immune defences, so it is a very balanced position,” Jenny Harris, chief executive of UKHSA, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

The UK recorded 119,789 new cases of covid-19 yesterday, setting another record. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 1.4 million people in the UK had the virus in the week ending 16 December, the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020.

Other coronavirus news

Healthcare workers in the US who have tested positive for covid-19 but do not have symptoms can stop isolating after seven days instead of 10, if they test negative for the virus, under new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Italy has banned public new year’s eve celebrations as well as all concerts and open air events until 31 January, aiming to curb a rise in infections driven by the omicron variant. Mask wearing will also be compulsory in outdoor public places under new rules.

Australia will cut the interval between second doses and booster shots from 5 months to 4 from 4 January, and then to 3 months on 31 January.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

The year of coronavirus variants: How alpha, delta and omicron brought new waves of disease across the world in 2021.

Cuba’s homegrown vaccines: Four months ago, hospitals in Cuba collapsed because of skyrocketing covid-19, but locally made vaccines have succeeded in bringing the outbreak under control.

Vaccine hesitancy: It is more important than ever for the UK to reach out to communities where concerns over vaccination are more common, such as pregnant women and some ethnic groups, reports Jason Arunn Murugesu.

See previous updates from November to December 2021, September to October 2021, July to September 2021, June to July 2021May 2021, April-March 2021, February 2021, January 2021, November/December 2020, and March to November 2020.

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

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Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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