Should we worry about covid this winter?
- Written by Lisa Summers
- Health Correspondent in Scotland
The nights are getting closer, the schools are back and a new version of Covid is spreading. It all looks so familiar.
But we are still far from the autumn of 2020 when coronavirus took over our lives and there were various ‘levels’ of lockdown across Scotland.
So as we head into this fall, what should we expect?
The University of Glasgow Center for Virus Research (MRC) has played a key role in monitoring new variants of the disease throughout the epidemic.
Professor Massimo Palmarini, head of the centre, says he’s not too concerned about what he’s seeing, but it’s important that monitoring continues.
“The new variant does not seem to have significant differences from the previous one, but that does not mean that it is not important,” he says.
He says there is concern that if surveillance is cut back too much, it will be difficult to predict which variants might emerge and which would be more worrisome than others.
According to Scotland’s National Public Health Service, the epidemic is now in a “quieter phase”.
This means that, starting at the end of this month, testing will be curtailed.
There will be no more routine testing in hospitals, prisons or care homes.
Instead, if you have symptoms, you will be tested in the same way as other infectious diseases.
Meanwhile, new advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) suggests that the COVID vaccine booster program is also being scaled back.
This year it will be offered to people over 65, as well as younger people with underlying health conditions and in groups such as health and social care workers or people living with those who are immunocompromised.
How much covid is there?
Getting accurate data on Covid cases is now more difficult.
Weekly figures from Public Health Scotland only measure the number of patients in hospital with Covid.
But this data does not tell us how much Covid has spread in a community.
This worries Dr Antonia Ho, consultant infectious disease and senior clinical lecturer at the Medical Research Center – Center for Virus Research.
“We don’t really have a good sense of what’s going on in the community because we don’t have much in the way of community monitoring and testing pretty much doesn’t happen anymore,” she says.
“This is a concern from a research standpoint in terms of being able to look for potentially more threatening variants.
“We’re not sequencing anywhere near as often as we used to be, and obviously the more information you have, the better.
“And we need a more complete picture in order to identify potential new variants that might be causing us problems.”
Should we treat Covid the same way we treat the flu?
The good news, Dr. Hu says, is that since most of the population has hybrid immunity from either vaccination or natural infection, the majority of cases are milder.
But she says some people still experience complications.
There has also been a lot of discussion about Covid being a virus that we live with in the same way as the flu.
The Doctor is a little wary of that.
She says, “In terms of symptoms, they are pretty much the same.
“It is very difficult to differentiate between you as a doctor, someone who presents to the hospital with the flu and someone who has Covid.
But there are some important differences.
“People with influenza are more likely to get bad secondary bacterial infections, while for Covid we see a lot of clots like lung and heart clots for example, and long Covid is an important complication.
“For example, a recent study in Australia found that in a highly vaccinated population with Omicron, one in five people described prolonged Covid symptoms. Therefore, prolonged Covid is an important consideration.”
The main caveat as we head into winter is not to get complacent.
Pollen uptake during the Over 75s Spring Campaign decreased significantly.
And last fall, only about 50% of health and social workers applied for a gag.
Dr Ho says having protection is the best form of defence, as the NHS faces another really difficult winter.
“Last winter we had a lot of stress from RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), influenza and Covid, and I expected a lot of the same,” she says.
“We often look forward to experiencing Australia having another busy flu season.
“This year they’ve seen a lot of influenza B tend to target children a bit more and 80% of their admissions have been in children, so we could see real pressure on pediatric services for example.
“So in an NHS that’s already under pressure, if we see another big wave with three respiratory viruses that could drive a lot of admissions, even though it might not be as severe as we saw in the first two waves, it could still cause a lot of problems.” for the NHS”.