Merseyside’s health protection team has been working flat out for a year now reacting to outbreaks of Covid-19 across the region.
The team, which usually deals with smaller outbreaks of things like measles or meningitis, saw its numbers triple from 38 to 127 as it faced its biggest challenge yet with the onset of the pandemic.
Stephen Flanagan, one of the team’s senior health protection practitioners, said: “It’s been busy and it’s been hard.
“I think quite often the perception of the health protection team has been a huge, big call centre.
“The team has remained busy, working flat out and understandably we’re quite tired but everyone’s dedicated to the job and doing the best that they can. We’re all passionate about public health and committed to protect the people of the North West.
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“It’s great to work with a team actually where everyone’s pulling in the same direction. We all want the same thing and that’s made much easier by working in the team when people are committed and focused at the job in hand.”
But the job in hand is an extraordinarily challenging one. Stephen’s team deals with all the outbreaks across Cheshire and Merseyside, investigating how the virus has been transmitted and providing advice on how to halt the spread of Covid-19.
To do that, they go into minute detail to examine exactly how an outbreak has spread, whether it’s in a care home, a prison, a factory or anywhere else.
Stephen said: “The detail you would go into for that risk assessment would be understanding who person A is with the infection, understanding whereabouts they are within the particular building, how they move through the building, whether person B, C, D and E were in the same room at the same time, how much contact they had with person A, how vulnerable those contacts are.
“There’s a whole host of information that we would gather to be able to understand the level of threat.”
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When there are only a few outbreaks, this work becomes easier, but during the peak in January there were thousands of cases across the region and the health protection team was constantly in demand.
The team also set up its own test and trace hub back in July to support local efforts to track down contacts of people with Covid-19 and get them to self-isolate.
Although care homes and prisons – enclosed spaces with lots of people, many of whom are also vulnerable – have been a particular concern, Stephen said there was no real pattern in other places that experienced outbreaks.
He said: “There’s no borders with the virus. If people don’t social distance when somebody’s infected, there is a risk of that transmitting.
“Anywhere where the virus is, we would expect to have cases reported to us.”
Because of that enduring risk, Stephen was keen to emphasise the need to keep following the guidance on social distancing even as infection rates fell and vaccinations increased.
He said: “To put it quite simply, if people move apart the rates will reduce. If they come together and there’s infection there, the rates will increase.
“We can’t become complacent, definitely. I think it’s too early.
“We must follow the guidance, continue to follow the guidance, otherwise we will see infections rise again.
“We can’t guarantee the reopening of schools won’t impact on the R number, but we know that transmission is driven by community contact. So it’s essential we continue to keep our contacts to a minimum outside of schools so that schools can reopen and stay open.”
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As lockdown gradually lifts, Stephen and his team will remain focused on new outbreaks, but he urged the public to play its part as well.
He said: “We’re at a difficult point really, we’re at quite a telling point at the moment.
“We’ve got good news, the arrival of the vaccines, and we’ve seen how social distancing and the control measures that we put in place work.
“As we move towards spring and the summer, it’s important that everyone continues to follow the national guidance so we can all get through this together.”