A RECORD number of care home staff are absent after testing positive for Covid amid warnings that operators are facing a “critical situation”.
It comes as statistics revealed that the number of infections confirmed in Scotland over the past week has exceeded 100,000 for the first time, with the number of patients in hospital with the virus doubling to 1,031 since Boxing Day.
The Omicron strain of the virus, which is highly transmissible and more likely to evade immunity, now accounts for 90 per cent of cases in Scotland following an explosive increase during December.
Although there evidence that a smaller proportion of patients are becoming seriously ill in the current wave, there are growing concerns about the variant’s impact on vital public services as infected staff are forced to isolate for 10 days.
Figures show that 462 care home staff were absent as a result of a positive Covid test in the week to Boxing Day – up from just 91 at the beginning of the month, and exceeding the previous peak of 443 absences directly due to Covid infections in January 2021.
One in three care home staff are yet to receive a booster, compared to around one in five frontline healthcare workers, following concerns previously raised over access to the jags.
Donald Macaskill, chief executive of Scottish Care, said: “It would be absolutely impossible to say whether the slow uptake and the reasons behind that for staff resulted in the number of cases that we have.
“I think probably, ore realistically, it reflects the sheer transmissibility of Omicron in the community, and that this is a population who have to test every day for their job
“I don’t think we’re seeing more care staff off than the general public, but there are lessons to be learned that we really do need to prioritise.
“During the first wave of vaccinations, vaccination teams were visiting care homes and then revisiting homes if not all staff were able to be vaccinated.
“We didn’t see that in most of the health board areas this time, so it was then left to staff to make their own arrangements, which weren’t always easy to do because of their work and because there weren’t the same number appointments in the early stages of the booster campaign.
“That has dramatically changed in the last six to eight weeks. There’s now a separate priority line online for staff in health and care so those numbers have gone up quite speedily.”
Current estimates suggest that two vaccine doses provide around 20% protection at best against symptomatic infections with Omicron, rising to between 55-80% after a booster dose.
In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, individuals who have tested positive for Covid can end self-isolation after seven days if they have no symptoms and test negative using a lateral flow device (LFD)on days six and seven – indicating that they are unlikely to be infectious.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said last week she was weighing up whether to adopt the same policy in Scotland to relieve pressure on the economy, but stressed that the Government wanted to take a “very responsible” approach.
Dr Macaskill said care home staff were already less likely to transmit the virus due to high-grade masks, PPE and infection control procedures, but cautioned that he would expect mandatory daily testing of any staff returning to work after isolation in recognition that they were working with a “highly vulnerable” population.
A total of 230 care home residents tested positive for the virus in the week to Boxing Day, up from 53 at the beginning of December but below previous peaks of more than 600 cases a week earlier in the pandemic. Nine in 10 elderly care home residents have now been boosted.
Dr Macaskill added that the average Covid absence rate across the care sector currently is equivalent to 5-7% of the workforce, but comes on top of an overall vacancy and sickness absence rate of 16% reported by providers during a survey back in September.
He said: “We are really in a very critical situation. Seasonal absence is always an issue in winter, it’s the nature of social care. In ordinary times you can cope with that if you’ve got some fat on the bone, but agencies are absolutely struggling to provide additional staff.
“The sector has always been dependent on agency staff so when they are literally running dry there is nobody to turn to.
“The staffing crisis has never been as acute as it is at the current time, and obviously we have yet to see the full impact of the Christmas-New Year socialising, so it is a worrying time.”
The latest Scottish Government figures also show that 3,316 NHS staff are isolating due to Covid-19, including nearly 1,800 nurses and midwives. This compares to a peak of more than 10,000 in April 2020.
Absences will mostly include infected NHS staff, as health and social care workers identified as close or household contacts of a positive case are exempt from self-isolation as long as they are doubly-vaccinated or boosted, return a negative PCR, and have no symptoms.
Other public services are being hit by stricter Covid rules, however. ScotRail is implementing a reduced timetable from today until January 28 to cope with rising numbers of staff infected with Omicron or potentially exposed to the virus.
As of yesterday, ScotRail said it was missing hundreds of staff including more than 120 drivers and about 70 conductors out of a workforce of 5,300 drivers, conductors and engineers.
Robert Samson, of the passenger group Transport Focus, said adopting a temporary timetable was better for commuters than “chaotic last-minute cancellations”.