Important message from Forth Valley’s director of public health

NHS Forth Valley is ready to deal with the coronavirus crisis – but everyone has their part to play in protecting the most vulnerable members of our community.

By Kirsty Paterson
Friday, 20th March 2020, 8:25 am

And Forth Valley’s director of public health, Dr Graham Foster, says that while it is too late to contain the virus, we can all help to slow the spread so that crucial health care can be given to those who really need it.

“We have moved from the containment phase to the delay phase,” he says.

“That means it is likely that many people will get this virus now – there’s no treatment or way to vaccinate, so we can’t stop it,” he said.

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“But the good news is that for most people who get it, it is going to be a mild illness. Most people will get a high fever and then a cough and it will be a nuisance, but not serious for at least eight out of ten people.”

But the disease, which attacks the lungs, is much more dangerous to elderly people and those with serious health conditions and recent events all over the world are telling the same story – that this is where the deaths are occurring.

“We need to do everything we can to stop vulnerable people from getting it. That’s what our strategy is all about,” says Dr Foster.

“If we can do that, it will allow the health service to cope when it becomes necessary.”

The health service is now on an emergency footing – something that Dr Foster does not remember happening before.

Intensive care beds are being increased and more staff are being trained to care for parents with serious respiratory illnesses who may require ventilation. This means that non-urgent appointments and operations will be cancelled for the time being although vital cancer treatments, emergency, maternity and urgent care will continue to be provided.

And with all of this in place he offers assurances that NHS Forth Valley is ready.

“We are preparing, we are getting the NHS ready and we will be able to cope,” he says.

Doctors and public health experts have been watching the virus as it has travelled throughout the globe – and they have been learning all the time, says Dr Foster.

In particular, they have taken valuable lessons from countries such as South Korea which moved successfully to slow it.

They have also learned from mistakes made in Italy where it caught them unprepared and quickly overwhelmed their health care system.

All of the measures that are now in place are aimed at preventing that happening here.

Dr Foster says that by following the guidance – which is being continually updated on the website nhsinform.net – we can all play our part in keeping the spread slow so the health service will keep running.

The first step towards protecting the vulnerable is for anyone who thinks they have the illness to self-isolate.

Dr Foster says that at this moment, many people who are choosing to self-isolate actually don’t have coronavirus.

“As time goes on we will become more aware of what coronavirus symptoms are,” he said. “They are different from a cold. The coronavirus is disease of the lungs, so the symptoms are from the mouth down. That means if you have a blocked nose or an earache you don’t have coronavirus.

“The two symptoms to look for are a high temperature and by that I mean an obvious fever – bathed in sweat, shivering.

“The other is a persistent, dry cough. Again, not a cough associated with  a cold where there is phlegm, but a dry cough.

“And it has to be persistent – it’s not just if you cough now and again.”

Importantly, if you do have symptoms you do not need to get medical advice, and that includes contacting NHS 24.

Again, going online to get advice from nhsinform.net will allow the health care system to deal with those who are at risk and vulnerable.

“You should manage it at home – drink fluids, rest, take paracetamol if you need to,” said Dr Foster. “Don’t contact the NHS unless your condition is worsening.

“The symptoms will last for seven days and after that you should feel better – if you’re getting worse you should seek advice.”

The next step to help the most vulnerable is to ask them to protect themselves.

“We can get those who are vulnerable to do a degree of self-isolation,” Dr Foster explained.

There are two groups of people affected – the first is those who have very serious underlying health conditions, who will almost certainly already have to be careful about not catching diseases.

The second, bigger, group is those over 70 and anyone who is normally invited to get a flu jab.

Even for these groups, being careful doesn’t necessarily mean staying indoors for the next three months.

What it does mean is ‘social distancing’; they should continue to be careful and follow the advice about really good hand-washing, avoid unnecessary travel, and reduce social contact wherever possible.

“They will need to follow that advice for the next twelve weeks,” Dr Foster says.

“It doesn’t mean hiding at home, but it does mean not taking any risks.” All of the measures they are putting in place are with the aim of protecting their staff who will be needed to provide lifesaving care to many.

Hospital visiting hours have been reduced and people are being asked to stay away wherever possible.

“We are trying to make sure people don’t bring it in to our hospital. It’s full of vulnerable people and vital health care staff,” he said.

“The fewer people who visit, the less chance it comes in.”

Visiting times will now be from 2-3pm and 7-8pm, with the exception of the neonatal unit and children’s ward which will continue with open visiting arrangements, but restricted to parents only.

It is restricted to two visitors at a time in most wards, apart from maternity where it is restricted to a single visitor.

Children under the age of 12 are not permitted to visit and anyone feeling unwell, including those with a persistent cough or high temperature should not visit.

It would also be very helpful if people don’t phone their GP at the moment as they are incredibly busy.

He urges people to stay informed but to take their information from the website www.nhsinform.scot.

A free helpline has also been set up for those who do not have symptoms but are looking for general coronavirus health advice 0800 028 2816. It is open: Monday to Friday, 8am to 10pm; Saturday and Sunday, 8am to 6pm.

“The guidance will change and people need to know it’s going to change,” he said.

“But that is the best source of up-to-date advice.”

And he has some words of reassurance for those who are worried or panicked by the virus.

“We are fairly certain that this will all be over in about three months and we can get back to normal,” he said.

“Epidemics usually last about three months and that’s our expectation,” he said.

“There is no reason for people to be afraid. It’s new and it’s scary but the NHS is ready and we’ll get through this.”