Health Minister: “We have to brace ourselves” for the spread of the Omicron in Wales
Wales’ health minister has said the nation will see “hundreds if not thousands” of cases of the Omicron Covid variant over the next few weeks.
What impact the new variant will have is still unknown but early data suggests it could be the most transmissible form of the virus yet – and that it could be less susceptible to existing antibodies.
The World Health Organization has advised countries to take precautions to limit its impact, in response the UK is expanding the COVID vaccine booster programme.
Public Health Wales said on Friday, the first Omicron case in Wales was identified in the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board area, and is linked with international travel, “there is no evidence of wider community transmission.”
Speaking on BBC Radio Wales’ Sunday Supplement Eluned Morgan said “we have to brace ourselves” for the spread of the variant throughout Wales.
Ms Morgan said: “It’s been really good to have the time to prepare for that, obviously focusing on really boosting our vaccination program and making sure that we can try and offer a booster to far for more people in order to give them the best possible chance to to get through Omicron virus if they contract it.”
The Health Minister said, “we’re learning more day by day” about Omicron “but there’s still a huge amount we need to know.”
“One of the biggest concerns is that we don’t know to what extent it evades our vaccines, but also to what extent people get seriously ill if they contract the virus because it’s still very new even in South Africa.”
Ms Morgan said it is “still early days, a huge amount of research work has been undertaken. I think we’re seeing more evidence now that there is a very strong likelihood that this spreads even far quicker than delta and that in itself is a worrying development.”
“We’ve got a huge (booster) program to undertake now as quickly as we can.”
She said: “This couldn’t have been a worse time because the wave is likely to hit us at Christmas and New Year and obviously that’s a really difficult time for the NHS anyway.”
“One of my biggest concerns is how we make sure that the NHS can stay on its feet at what is already a very pressurised time.”
Booster ramp up in North Wales
The health board in North Wales has said it is putting plans in place to “significantly ramp” the vaccination programme following the decision by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), Four Nations and Welsh government to protect people more quickly.
The new JCVI advice means third doses – boosters – will now be available to adults three months after their second vaccination, before this the gap was six months.
It also means all people over 18 will be offered a third dose by the end of January 2022, prioritisation will start with those oldest and descend in bands of five years.
At the same time, second doses will be offered to 12 to 15-year-olds and fourth doses to people who are immunosuppressed.
A second COVID vaccine dose is already being offered to 16-17 year olds.
Ramping up the booster programme in North Wales will present the health board with a “massive challenge” as it needs to find enough staff to deliver a huge increase in the number of jabs needed to maximise the immunity of people in the region.
Currently the health board says it is delivering around 30,000 jabs a week, but it will need to “more than double” that to hit the new target, Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board’s Executive Director of Nursing and Midwifery Gill Harris has said.
“This presents us with a massive challenge in terms of finding enough vaccinators, support staff and facilities to make this happen.” She said.
“We are now putting plans in place to bring in the resources we need to manage this increase in activity.”
To date, the health board have given over 190, 000 jabs since the booster programme started, which is about 22 per cent of all boosters delivered in Wales.
Of the 30, 000 additional appointments it is aiming to provide each week, BCUHB says plans are already place to deliver 8,000 a week from January.
Gill Harris asked people not to contact the Health Board or their GP as “we will continue to contact them directly when it is their turn to be vaccinated.”
“We are currently offering vaccinations from 8am to 8pm, covering 7 days a week across North Wales.” She said.
As part of BCUHB’s approach, consideration is being given on how to extend those hours.
“We already have 129 lanes in operation, delivering around 30,000 jabs a week and we are aiming to double this rate.”
“We currently have 164 whole time equivalent staff delivering this huge vaccination programme, but need more in order to accelerate our efforts.”
“More of our staff are stepping forward to support and we are working with partners to increase the number further.”
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