COVID-19 still with us, but vaccination and taking practical steps can reduce spread
The Public Health Agency (PHA) has taken the decision to bring forward the start date of this year’s autumn flu and COVID-19 vaccination programmes to 18 September 2023. This is a precautionary measure following the identification of a new COVID-19 variant.
This decision comes following scientists from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) examining the variant BA.2.86, which was first detected in the UK on Friday 18 August. While BA.2.86 is not currently classified as a variant of concern, advice from the UKHSA suggests that starting the autumn vaccine programme sooner will deliver greater protection, supporting those at greatest risk of severe illness and reducing the potential impact on our health and social care system.
The PHA and the Department of Health work with UKHSA as part of UK-wide monitoring of the virus and variants. The latest published data, detailed in the COVID-19 Epidemiological Bulletin for Northern Ireland contain information on detections of variants and are published weekly. www.publichealth.hscni.net/covid-19-coronavirus/covid-19-information-public/covid-19-epidemiological-bulletin
Dr Joanne McClean, Director of Public Health at the PHA, said: “We are still living with COVID-19 and have been since the height of the pandemic. There is no change to the wider public health advice at this time, but the steps we can all take to reduce spread still apply to strains of coronavirus which are currently in circulation or emerging.
“The SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 is constantly evolving, with new variants arising frequently. Some of these can become dominant and could cause further waves of infection. There is no evidence at present of any recent changes having resulted in greater transmissibility or more serious infection. While there has been an increase in community cases and hospital admissions due to COVID-19 in recent weeks, these remain at relatively low levels.
“The risk of catching or passing on COVID-19, flu or other respiratory infections is greatest when someone who is infected comes into close proximity with other people or shares an enclosed or poorly-ventilated space with them. Therefore, if you have symptoms of a respiratory infection, we would advise you to avoid coming into unnecessary contact with other people to reduce your risk of infecting them, ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ by carrying tissues, using them to catch a cough or sneeze, and disposing of them immediately, and wash your hands thoroughly and regularly with soap and water and use hand sanitiser.
“Although widespread COVID-19 testing is no longer available, it is important to be aware of symptoms that could be caused by COVID-19 infection so you can exercise caution and take action to reduce the risk of spreading it to other people, some of whom might be particularly vulnerable.”
The life-saving vaccination programme which will help protect Northern Ireland against deadly viruses ahead of winter is now due to commence on 18 September, starting with residents in care homes, who are some of the most vulnerable members of our community.
In addition to residents in a care home for older adults the COVID-19 booster vaccine will be offered to the following cohorts, in line with JCVI guidance:
- all adults aged 65 years and over
- persons aged 6 months to 64 years in a clinical risk group, as laid out in the Immunisation Green Book, COVID-19 chapter (Green Book)
- frontline health and social care workers
- persons aged 12 to 64 years who are household contacts (as defined in the Green Book) of people with immunosuppression
- persons aged 16 to 64 years who are carers (as defined in the Green Book) and staff working in care homes for older adults
Those eligible for HSC flu vaccine in 2023/24 are:
- all preschool children aged two to four years on 1 September 2023
- all primary and secondary (up to and including year 12) school children
- those aged six months to under 65 years in clinical risk groups (as defined by the influenza chapter in ‘Immunisation against infectious disease’ ( ‘Green Book’)
- all those aged 65 years and over on 31 March 2024
- pregnant women
- those in long-stay residential care homes
- close contacts of immunocompromised individuals
- frontline health and social care workers (HSCWs)
Dr McClean continued: “Vaccines are the best defence against COVID-19 and flu. They provide good protection against hospitalisation and death, and reduce the risk of long-term symptoms and spread to others. I would urge anyone who is eligible for vaccination to avail of it to help protect themselves and those around them.”
People who are eligible for vaccination against COVID-19 or flu this autumn and winter should make themselves aware of their own GP surgery’s or community pharmacist’s vaccination arrangements and work with them to get vaccinated.
COVID-19 infections reduced to a low level in Northern Ireland during early summer 2023. At the end of June and in early July, the number of hospital admissions with COVID-19 was at the lowest level since June 2021. The number of people who were admitted to hospital with COVID-19 has risen again in recent weeks, but still remains at relatively low levels compared with the last two years, although it may rise further. In the last year, there has been a wave of COVID-19 infection every three to four months. The increases are due to waning immunity and the evolution of the virus. Each vaccine campaign and wave of infections increases the number of people who have immunity, so the rate of serious infections then falls again. This can be seen over the longer time period on the UK dashboard, to which Northern Ireland information is provided: https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/healthcare?areaType=nation&areaName=Northern%20Ireland