Published: 06:00, 23 July 2020
| Updated: 11:03, 23 July 2020
Almost a fifth of the country’s Covid-19 deaths in the last week have occurred at hospitals in east Kent – compounding fears the health trust has struggled to control the spread of the virus within its sites.
Concerns are mounting over whether in-hospital transmission across east Kent has been a major factor in the worrying death toll and high infection rates.
Among those to have lost their life to Covid-19 was a Canterbury woman who contracted the contagious disease while staying at the QEQM in Margate.
This is more than double the figure reported in Leicester, which recorded the second highest number of deaths, at 30.
The east Kent trust is now accounting for an alarmingly high proportion of the UK’s coronavirus fatalities, despite the fact the number of people dying with Covid-19 is decreasing, albeit at a much slower rate than the national trend.
In April, less than 1% of the country’s coronavirus deaths happened at the trust. But since then, this ratio has more than doubled month-on-month.
In the week to Tuesday, July 21, East Kent Hospitals accounted for a staggering 18% – almost one in five – of the UK’s 55 deaths.
Meanwhile, Kent’s three other hospital trusts have not recorded a single coronavirus death in the last fortnight.
Gwenneth Bowyer, 89, tragically died from Covid-19 last week, after contracting the virus while in hospital in Margate.
Mrs Bowyer, from Hassall Reach in Canterbury, had been suffering from abdominal pain and was admitted to the QEQM, where she was diagnosed with acute appendicitis.
But she contracted coronavirus during her stay, and died on July 13.
A post-mortem gave her cause of death as bronchopneumonia due to Covid-19, while her appendectomy was listed as a contributing factor, an inquest opening heard this week.
It is thought in-hospital transmission such as this has played a major part in high infection rates across east Kent, with new cases particularly alarming in Ashford, home to the William Harvey Hospital.
Ashford’s infection rate - the number of people catching the virus in every 100,000 – is currently second-highest in the country, at 1,025.
It is second only to Leicester, which is the only other authority to have a rate higher than 900 and has been subjected to a local lockdown because of the high number of new cases.
But despite this, KCC’s director of public health has assured there is no need for a local lockdown in east Kent.
Supporting the theory that in-hospital transmission is the reason behind high infection rates, Andrew Scott-Clark said last week that while there have been infections in care settings, “widespread community transmission” does not appear to be a problem.
Additionally, a “late, second peak” of new cases at the end of May – in-part blamed for the spike in deaths – occurred largely in Ashford and Thanet, which host the region’s two acute hospitals.
Meanwhile, the East Kent Hospitals Trust has confirmed it is receiving help from NHS England and NHS Improvement to control the spread of infection.
Last week, it revealed plans to carry out an immediate five-day testing blitz on all 9,000 of its hospital staff in a bid to reduce the transmission risk across its sites.
Health chiefs say there are currently “working to fully understand the recent number of deaths” at the trust.
But they have suggested the figures could be due to east Kent’s having a “significantly older” population with more co-morbidities - multiple health conditions affecting the same person - than the country’s average.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the average age of a Kent resident is 41.2 years – one year older than the national average of 40.2.
This figure is higher in Dover, Folkestone and Thanet, where the average age is between 43 and 44.4.
But in Ashford, the average age is only slightly above the national figure, at 40.7.
Ashford MP Damian Green says he has been following the issue of in-hospital transmissions “very closely”.
He said: “I am glad that the testing of all staff members is now going ahead, as the number of deaths at the William Harvey has been wrongly assumed by many to mean widespread community infections in Ashford.
“Some of the deaths in the various East Kent hospitals can be explained by co-morbidities, but I hope the [staff] testing can reveal the underlying reasons for the figures in the Trust, so that clinicians can take the appropriate action, and everyone in East Kent can be reassured.”
Canterbury and Whitstable MP Rosie Duffield branded the number of recent deaths at the trust a “cause for concern”.
“We’ve sought assurances from the trust that the measures being taken to limit the risk of cross infection are serious and robust; I will continue to liaise with them and scrutinise the measures being taken,” she said.
Dr Rebecca Martin, Chief Medical Officer for East Kent Hospitals, maintained that preventing and controlling infection has been a “priority” throughout the pandemic.
She said: “Our staff are dedicated to caring for all our patients and have been touched by each death during the pandemic.
“We are working with Public Health England and other partners to fully understand the recent number of deaths, but we know that the population of east Kent is significantly older with more co-morbidities than the England average and that we are one of the largest trusts in the country.
“Infection prevention and control has been our priority throughout this pandemic and is now being strengthened further by testing all 9,000 members of staff.
Patients should continue to attend their appointments but should wear a face covering, maintain social distancing and regularly clean their hands.”
The trust says it is taking steps to control infection, by limiting the number of people on-site, checking temperatures and providing face masks and hand cleansing facilities.
It has also been regularly testing “significant numbers of staff”, as well as testing patients on admission, and again at three and seven days after admission.
NHS South East says it has agreed a “package of support” with the trust to strengthen its infection prevention control, including offering the expertise of a specialist nurse and additional training.
The trust was unable to provide a hospital-by-hospital breakdown of Covid-related deaths, and declined to explain why this information is unavailable.