Coronavirus outbreaks in care homes are surging as the government scrambles to deliver vaccinations to vulnerable residents, new figures show.
Public Health England documents reveal the number of outbreaks reported in UK care homes has tripled in a month and increased by more than 60% in one week.
There were 549 acute respiratory infection (ARI) incidents – instances of at least two confirmed cases – in care homes in the week ending January 3.
This is 61% more than the 341 in the previous week and three times the 176 incidents reported in the week ending December 6.
Numbers of weekly reported incidents fell for three weeks in November, when a four-week lockdown was in place, but they have been rising since that first week in December.
It is understood that outbreaks are able to be identified and addressed more rapidly than during the first wave due to increased testing.
One care home in East Sussex lost half of its residents to the disease over the Christmas period, with 13 of 27 individuals losing their lives.
The home operator’s managing director, Adam Hutchison, told the Guardian: “It is just unstoppable. We are sitting ducks.”
Hutchison said it was unclear how the virus had got into the home as visits had been banned, all staff were using PPE and there had been no agency staff working who might have transferred the virus from a different home.
He said: “It’s hard for me to say how it got in. Because of the protocols we were following, everything was there.”
An increase in respiratory infections is also consistent with patterns in previous winters when weather becomes colder, and part of the most recent weekly rise may be down to delays in reports over the Christmas break.
Care homes run by Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare have also seen a rise in cases, but the vaccine rollout is stopping potential outbreaks from escalating in homes where residents have had an initial dose.
Anna Selby, who heads up the group’s Covid-19 task force, believes that some of these are due to the new variant, which is now “breaching our defences more quickly than it was”.
She said: “We are assuming we have got the new variant because we’ve got quicker outbreaks than we’ve had previously, it is starting to spread out but it has been all localised around the Home Counties, London, the south-east.”
She added: “We are at the sharp end, and it gives a really, really good incentive to roll out the vaccine as soon as we can.”
HC-One currently has around a third of its 330 care homes with cases, including 303 residents and 378 staff testing positive.
The provider has more homes in the north than it does in the south-east, and has seen a fall since early December.
Vic Rayner, executive director of the National Care Forum, said: “It has never been more important to ensure that we continue to focus on the most vulnerable people living within care homes.
“The sheer pace and spread of this new variant cannot be underestimated and whatever is happening in relation to community transmission will have a massive impact on care homes.
“The same pressures that are being experienced within hospitals are there within care homes.
“It is not just the NHS that saves lives – social care has a huge role in that too – and our response to the new variant must consider how we support people across the whole system.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have been doing everything we can to protect care homes since the start of the pandemic, and have provided billions of pounds of additional funding, free PPE to care homes have and increased staff testing to identify and rapidly isolate more cases.
“More than 1.5million people have already been vaccinated, including more than 650,000 over-80s, and the vaccination programme is rapidly scaling up now the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is available to protect as many vulnerable people as possible.”