| 17°C Belfast


Lisa Smyth

Public has a right to know the full story of true toll on elderly in Northern Ireland

Lisa Smyth



Close

While younger generations are by no means immune to the virus and many thousands of young people have tragically lost their lives, the fact remains that Covid-19 presents a significant threat to the older population

While younger generations are by no means immune to the virus and many thousands of young people have tragically lost their lives, the fact remains that Covid-19 presents a significant threat to the older population

Getty Images/iStockphoto

While younger generations are by no means immune to the virus and many thousands of young people have tragically lost their lives, the fact remains that Covid-19 presents a significant threat to the older population

Until the end of last year, most people had never heard of coronavirus.

But as SARS-CoV-2 took hold of China and began its rapid spread west, scientists around the world have scrambled to learn as much as possible about the newly discovered virus.

According to early reports from China, older people with pre-existing health conditions were most at risk.

And statistics have certainly borne this out.

While younger generations are by no means immune to the virus and many thousands of young people have tragically lost their lives, the fact remains that Covid-19 presents a significant threat to the older population.

Daily Headlines & Evening Telegraph Newsletter

Receive today's headlines directly to your inbox every morning and evening, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

Italy's large elderly population is one of the theories put forward to explain why the country has been so brutally ravaged by coronavirus.

So, as the virus inched closer to the UK and the first cases were reported in Northern Ireland, health officials quite rightly issued warnings to older people with chronic health conditions to be particularly alert to the dangers of Covid-19.

At the same time, they began to overhaul the way healthcare in Northern Ireland is delivered in a bid to mitigate against a surge in critically ill patients.

Radical changes to services have been implemented to divert as many people as possible away from hospitals. Most outpatient appointments and elective surgeries have been cancelled and even potentially life-saving cancer treatments have been suspended.

GPs have been recruited to reduce pressure on hospitals, with family doctors running Covid centres designed to keep patients out of wards where at all possible.

Ventilators and other specialist equipment have been procured to bolster capacity in critical-care units, while Belfast City Hospital was emptied of patients so it could be transformed into Northern Ireland's Nightingale hospital.

Health officials also launched a recruitment drive on an unprecedented scale, appealing to retired healthcare professionals to return to the frontline and allowing trainee doctors and nurses to complete their studies early to assist their colleagues on hospital wards.

Of course, there have been hiccups, such as issues in the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE). But, by and large, the preparations to support the acute sector have been nothing short of extraordinary.

Compare that, however, to the work that has been done to protect care home residents - who by their very presence in a residential setting means that they are already vulnerable - and the measures have been less impressive.

On March 19, the first Covid-19 death in Northern Ireland was confirmed - yet two weeks later it emerged that staff at one Co Antrim care home were being given one face mask a day even though they were caring for more than 30 vulnerable and elderly residents. Another care home received an envelope sent by courier from a health trust which contained four face masks.

At the time, Pauline Shepherd, chief executive of Independent Health and Care Providers, said: "We are being told there is no shortage of PPE in Northern Ireland, but if that is the case, then care homes must be at the bottom of the pile because it isn't working its way in to them, it isn't going where it needs to be."

It also emerged that care homes were being asked to admit people being discharged from hospital - even though they hadn't been tested for coronavirus.

Since then, there have been multiple reports of homes coming under pressure from health trusts to accept new residents from hospitals without them being tested for the deadly virus.

Two weeks after calls to improve the supply of PPE to care homes and it emerged the issue had still not been resolved.

In fact, a leading dementia charity was so concerned about the situation in care homes that it said a Covid-19 testing programme should be urgently put in place in a bid to save lives.

On April 10, a leading dementia charity called on Health Minister Robin Swann to implement a specific testing programme across the region to identify hotspots of infection in nursing homes.

Bernadine McCrory, Northern Ireland's Alzheimer's Society director, said: "We would like to see all residents and staff tested where 10% of residents of a home have or are suspected of having the virus as it would give a clearer picture and help to keep everyone safe.

"We don't think just one person should be tested, we think everyone should be tested - it seems a sensible approach and this should be introduced urgently, the surge is happening now, time is of the essence."

While testing of care home residents and workers has since been ramped up, it still falls far short of the expectations of the Alzheimer's Society.

Meanwhile, the surveillance of Covid-19 cases appears woefully inadequate.

Health bosses are still unable to say how many care home residents have died or how many people living in care homes have been diagnosed with Covid-19.

However, tragic outbreaks at the likes of Owen Mor Care Centre in Londonderry, where at least 10 residents lost their lives in an 18-day period, have shed some light on the devastation being wreaked by coronavirus.

Even the statistics released on Friday do not paint a complete picture in that they do not reveal how many people who died in hospital contracted the virus in a care home.

It is worth noting that of the 10 Owen Mor residents known to have lost their lives between March 28 and April 14, three of them passed away in hospital.

That means their deaths are not included in the 41 revealed by officials on Friday.

Exactly how many more care residents have died in hospital is unknown and it is doubtful whether the real figure will ever come to light.

But given the very real concerns that have been raised about official efforts to protect care home residents, the public has a right to know the answers.


Top Videos



Privacy