More than 900 healthcare workers are currently off work in west Wales as the local health board admits it is dealing with unprecedented pressures.
Hywel Dda University Health Board – which runs hospitals in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire – has confirmed that around 930 of its staff are currently off either with sickness or due to them self-isolating.
Furthermore, more than 150 people are currently in those hospitals with Covid-19 – a significantly greater number than during the first wave of coronavirus in the spring.
The health board has said the situation, which it described as “very difficult”, was creating staffing problems, with support staff under “significant pressure” as they dealt with patients.
Across the health board region, the seven-day infection rate (for the seven days up to December 9) was at 316.3 per 100,000 population – higher than in London and Birmingham.
In Carmarthenshire, the rate for that seven day period was as high as 448.2.
Outbreaks of coronavirus have occurred at all of the health board’s general hospitals, resulting in ward closures over the past few weeks, and because of sickness, those hospitals cannot staff all of the beds that they would otherwise expect to have open at this time of year.
Hospitals have also had to transfer some staff and patients to field hospitals located in both Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.
The health board’s chair did not mince her words when outlining the scale of the issue.
“The darkest hour is before the dawn and whilst hope is on the horizon in the form of the vaccine, this feels like our hardest hour yet,” said Maria Battle.
“Our NHS and other care staff and critical workers have put themselves in harm’s way during the course of their work. Whilst we know it is hard after this time and as we approach a special time of year, the risk we all face could be greatly reduced by each of us taking action.”
Because of the current situation, Hywel Dda is pleading for the public’s help to ease the pressure on it by following government guidance, including staying out of each other’s homes except in limited circumstances.
It is also asking people to call 999 only for urgent and emergency care, to call 111 rather than attending A&E for non-urgent needs, and to play a helpful role by supporting the discharge of relatives from hospitals to their homes.
The leader of Carmarthenshire Council, Emlyn Dole, said the authority was “seriously concerned about the rapid spread of coronavirus within Carmarthenshire’s communities”.
“We are so concerned that in the run-up to Christmas and with the virus spreading so quickly, we are asking people to consider self-isolating to protect themselves and their families,” he added.
“Please do everything you can to stay safe.”
Meanwhile, in Ceredigion, which had an infection rate of 202.2 for the seven days up to December 9, the council’s leader has called on people to sacrifice their enjoyment over Christmas in order to keep people safe.
“This year’s festive celebrations will be different,” said Ellen ap Gwynn, leader of Ceredigion Council.
“We must sacrifice seeing loved ones so that we can meet up another time when it’s safe to do so. We all have a responsibility to ensure we follow the guidelines so limit the amount of people you see to play your part. This will keep our families and friends safe and protect our community and hospital NHS services.”
In Pembrokeshire, which had an infection rate of 184.4 for the week ending December 9, the message from local leaders is the same.
“I understand that people have been looking forward to Christmas even more than ever given what we have been through this year,” said David Simpson, leader of Pembrokeshire Council.
“But now is not the time to throw away all the hard work and sacrifice of the past nine months. If we limit the number of people we meet over Christmas we will help prevent the spread. By preventing the spread we are preventing further deaths, it really is that stark.
“We have light at the end of the tunnel with the roll-out of the vaccines – sticking to the rules now will pay off for all of us in the longer term.”
Find out about coronavirus cases in your area:
Hywel Dda University Health Board reminded people of the importance of getting a Covid-19 test and self-isolating if they began to show any symptoms, and of self-isolating if another member of their household was showing symptoms.
With Christmas just ten days away, First Minister Mark Drakeford confirmed he was meeting with other ministers from across the UK on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the previously agreed upon four-nation approach to the five-day festive period between December 23 and December 27.