NHS Pressures: Bed Closures From Norovirus as Flu Season Starts

Peter Russell

December 06, 2019

Health officials urged people eligible for the influenza vaccine to get vaccinated after figures showed the flu season is underway in the UK.

Public Health England (PHE) said evidence so far suggested that the vaccine was a good match for the main strain of flu circulating in the community.

Figures released on Thursday showed hospitalisation rates for laboratory confirmed influenza stood at a rate of 4.31 per 100,000 people in England compared to 2.85 per 100,000 in the previous week. Hospitalisation rates were categorised as being at 'moderate' intensive levels.

In addition, the ICU/HDU admission rate for laboratory confirmed flu was above baseline levels, with a rate of 0.15 per 100,000 people in England, compared to 0.08 per 100,000 the previous week.

Bed Closures Caused by Norovirus

The impact on hospital services coincided with an increase in norovirus which led to the closure of more than 1100 hospital beds in England in the last week.

Senior health professionals said they were concerned about the spread of norovirus this winter and the impact it could have on hospitals and other services.

The NHS urged the public to stay at home if they developed norovirus to avoid passing it on.

The latest data from Public Health England (PHE) showed that the number of positive norovirus laboratory reports during the 2 weeks in the middle of November were 28% higher than the average for the last 5 years.

In addition, almost double the number of hospital beds were closed every day over the last week than at the same time last year, in a bid to stop the spread of diarrhoea and vomiting to more patients, PHE said.

Nick Phin, National Infection Service deputy director at PHE, said: "Cases of norovirus are at higher levels than we would expect to see at this time of year, although this is not unprecedented."

Prof Stephen Powis, NHS medical director, said: "We’ve already seen a number of hospitals and schools affected by norovirus, and unfortunately instances like these are likely to rise over the coming weeks."

Flu Vaccination

Vaccination of primary school children in England against influenza was interrupted this autumn due to a delay in delivery of the nasal spray from the manufacturer.

However, the school flu vaccination programme was able to resume on the 25th November, PHE said.

Provisional data showed uptake amongst primary school children was between 15.2% in year 6, and 17.9% in reception up until 31st October.

By week 48, the proportion of people in England who had received the influenza vaccine in targeted groups was 35.4% for under 65 year-olds in a clinical risk group, 37.5% in pregnant women, and 67.5% in those aged 65 and over.

Uptake rates in key eligible groups last season were:

  • Adults aged 65 or older (72.0%)

  • Adults in at-risk groups (48.0%)

  • Pregnant women (45.2%)

  • Children aged 2 (43.8%)

  • Children aged 3 (45.9%)

Provisional figures suggested a smaller proportion of healthcare workers had received the flu vaccine by 31st October this year (43.6%), compared to the same time last year (46.3%).

PHE and NHS England urged people in eligible groups to get vaccinated.

Dr Jamie Lopez Bernal, head of flu at PHE, said: "Flu season has now started and so it's really important that people get their flu vaccine as soon as possible to ensure they are protected against this potentially very serious illness.

"The initial evidence suggests the vaccine is a good match for the main strain of flu that is circulating.

"Vaccination uptake in toddlers is lower than we would hope for at this point in the year due to previous delays in delivery of the vaccine, which are now resolved. If you have children aged 2 to 3 go to your GP to get them vaccinated now."

Flu Strains for Winter 2019-20

This year, the strains used in flu vaccines are:

  • An A/Brisbane/02/2018 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus

  • An A/Kansas/14/2017 (H3N2)-like virus

  • A B/Colorado/06/2017-like virus (B/Victoria/2/87 lineage)

  • A B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus (B/Yamagata/16/88 lineage)

Worldwide, seasonal influenza A accounted for the majority of detections, with equal proportions of influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 and A(H3N2) viruses.

A wider range of flu vaccines are available this season. This includes the 'adjuvanted' vaccine offered to those aged 65 years and over for the first time last year.

In addition, a new quadrivalent cell-based vaccine was made available for those aged 65 and over, and those under-65 with underlying medical conditions.


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