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Lisa Smyth

Secrecy surrounding care home outbreak statistics is simply unacceptable

Lisa Smyth



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'A new system was set up a number of weeks ago in which all care homes in Northern Ireland must log information with the RQIA by 10.30am every day, including the number of residents with Covid-19 symptoms, the number of residents diagnosed with the virus, and the number of residents who have died'

'A new system was set up a number of weeks ago in which all care homes in Northern Ireland must log information with the RQIA by 10.30am every day, including the number of residents with Covid-19 symptoms, the number of residents diagnosed with the virus, and the number of residents who have died'

AP

'A new system was set up a number of weeks ago in which all care homes in Northern Ireland must log information with the RQIA by 10.30am every day, including the number of residents with Covid-19 symptoms, the number of residents diagnosed with the virus, and the number of residents who have died'

For all of the things that we don't know about Covid-19 - of which there are many - it has been abundantly clear from very early on that it is extremely infectious and also particularly dangerous to older people with pre-existing health conditions.

Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that every possible precaution would be taken to try and stop the virus from getting into care homes, where the majority of residents are older people with complex co-morbidities.

With this in mind, families reluctantly agreed to stop visiting their loved ones in care homes, knowing that it was an essential sacrifice to keep their relatives safe.

It is little wonder therefore that concerns have been raised that care homes have continued to admit residents throughout the pandemic, and that the Department of Health has only recently updated guidance stating that new admissions must be tested for Covid-19 48 hours before moving into a new home.

Even where a person is found to have Covid-19, care homes are still being asked to admit them, while putting in place strict isolation measures. However, this can be particularly challenging in residential settings which cater for people living with dementia.

All of this has been going on despite chronic staff shortages in the sector and a severe lack of PPE. So, it seemed almost inevitable that Covid-19 would take hold in our care homes - but the extent to which it has spread through residential facilities remains completely unknown.

Health officials have appeared reluctant to release this information, only including the number of care home outbreaks in daily updates when they came under pressure to provide clarity on the subject.

What they did not explain, however, is that outbreaks are two or more linked cases - therefore the figures they were releasing did not tell us the total number of care homes affected by Covid-19.

With health officials facing mounting criticism, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) began to release weekly death toll figures, including a breakdown of where people had died. However, these statistics do not reveal the full picture - the deaths are recorded depending on whether a person dies in hospital or in the community, broken down by hospice, residential property or care home.

They do not tell us how many people who are dying in hospital contracted Covid-19 in a care home and it is unclear whether health officials are even gathering this information.

If this is the case, can we ever truly know the real care home death toll? At the same time, surely this is crucial data if we are to track this virus and quickly establish hotspots and care homes that are struggling to manage?

The information black hole appears to go even further - we don't know exactly how many care homes are affected, we don't know how many residents have died from Covid-19, and we don't know how many residents have been diagnosed with the virus.

What is even more troubling is the fact that health officials seem so reluctant to share any of this information with the public.

They have inexplicably stopped including the number of care home outbreaks in the Department of Health's daily dashboard of statistics and even though this did not provide a full picture, it still gave some idea of the spread of the virus.

In mid-April, they refused to respond to requests for the number of care home residents who have died and the number of care home residents diagnosed with Covid-19, while a further request for the number of care home residents with Covid-19 submitted to the Regulation and Quality and Improvement Authority (RQIA) has failed to shed light on the situation.

A new system was set up a number of weeks ago in which all care homes in Northern Ireland must log information with the RQIA by 10.30am every day, including the number of residents with Covid-19 symptoms, the number of residents diagnosed with the virus, and the number of residents who have died.

Despite this, the RQIA directed the query to the Public Health Agency (PHA), who subsequently referred the matter back to the RQIA. The regulator subsequently said it could not provide the information - quite a conundrum indeed.

Under the circumstances, it's difficult to reach any conclusion other than that those in charge simply don't want the public to know the extent of the spread of Covid-19 through care homes.

This understandably leads to the question - why? There is a growing suspicion that the situation is so grave that it is too unpalatable, too distressing, to be made public.

But keeping people in the dark isn't alleviating concerns either - instead it breeds suspicion, with the public relying on local rumour, gossip among staff and death notices to establish how far the virus has spread through one of the most vulnerable sections of community.

Bit by bit, harrowing stories of loss are emerging, as grieving relatives speak out about their devastation and whistleblowers come forward about their concerns.

Quite simply, this is unacceptable.

Latest figures have revealed at least 40% of those who have died from Covid-19 have been care home residents and there are very real concerns they have been badly failed, so it is incumbent on those in charge to be open and honest about what is really going on.

Belfast Telegraph