HOSPITALS are already starting to see an increase in cases of the winter vomiting bug, raising concerns about the impact of ward closures on over-stretched services.
Health Protection Scotland (HPS) said four NHS boards had experienced norovirus activity in the week ending
29 September, with six hospitals reporting seven ward closures.
HPS said this signalled the start of the norovirus season, which can increase pressure on busy hospitals as they struggle to find beds for patients.
Last year, when low levels of norovirus were seen in Scotland, the season started late, in mid-December, while in 2012 it began in mid-November, contributing to high levels of demand on hospitals across the country.
The apparently earlier start to the norovirus season this year comes as several boards are experiencing difficulties in their emergency departments, with large numbers of patients and a shortage of staff.
This week, NHS Grampian produced a £2 million plan to expand staff working in “unscheduled care” to cope with patients at A&E.
Norovirus causes vomiting and diarrhoea and is a serious threat to the elderly and infirm. HPS said as of 29 September, a total of 41 patients had been affected by norovirus on the closed wards, including 18 in Lanarkshire and 14 in Lothian.
In total, up to the 38th week of this year, HPS had received 844 lab reports of norovirus. Many more cases will have occurred in the community but not been reported, due to the relatively mild and short-lived nature of the illness.
Dr Evonne Curran, infection control nurse consultant at HPS, said: “I don’t think we can expect the season that we had last year, when there were no new strains which maybe had an impact. You really don’t know how it’s going to present until it presents, but it’s a little bit early.”
Dr Curran said cases usually peak around Christmas and New Year. Shje said to help reduce the risk of outbreaks in hospitals, care settings and the wider community, HPS was again asking members of the public who think they have norovirus to stay at home until at least 48 hours after symptoms stop.
Scottish Labour’s health spokesman Neil Findlay said: “The NHS in Scotland is already facing increasing strain under the SNP and the norovirus season being declared early will only exacerbate this.
“With seven wards already being closed due to the virus we must ensure that our hospitals are properly staffed and resourced, yet confidence in being lost in [health minister] Alex Neil to deliver.”
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: “In years previous the Scottish Government has been absolutely ill-prepared for norovirus.
“That has led to the closing of wards, and the worsening in condition of many elderly people.
“This time round the Scottish Government must equip health boards with enough resources to ensure this winter vomiting bug is kept under strict control.”
A government spokesman said: “We will continue to monitor norovirus outbreaks closely, taking all steps to minimise its impact. Everyone can do their bit to stop its spread by observing good hand hygiene, particularly when visiting hospitals.”