Published: 10:11, 24 July 2020
| Updated: 13:06, 24 July 2020
The number of people dying of Covid-19 in east Kent's hospitals has risen to almost a quarter of all deaths in England - sparking calls for "definitive" answers as to why.
The next highest toll recorded is in Manchester, where there were four deaths over the same period.
Since the pandemic began, at least 1,011 people have died in Kent hospitals with Covid-19, with more than 500 more dying in care homes and elsewhere, according to latest figures.
Of these deaths, 438 have been recorded in East Kent hospitals - 1.5% of the total nationally since coronavirus struck in March.
But for deaths in July this ratio jumps to 11.3%, and for the last week to 23.9%.
In-hospital transmission is believed to have been an issue for the East Kent Hospitals Trust, which has called in help from national specialists in infection control.
And in the last week it has tested all 9,000 of its staff in a five-day blitz, with 13 positive results so far.
Trust bosses say they are working closely with Public Health England and other partners to fully understand the reasons behind the recent number of deaths, while also introducing Covid control measures at their sites.
Wilf Williams, the accountable officer at Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), which commissions healthcare in the region, says it is paying "close attention" to what he describes as a "serious" situation.
But speaking yesterday at a virtual meeting of Kent County Council's health and overview scrutiny (HOSC), he assured there were no plans to shut any hospitals.
He also told Kent councillors that the infection rate had been "relatively low" among the staff tests carried out - that he had seen to date - but was waiting for all the Covid results to come in before making a final assessment.
Mr Williams said: "I'm not making excuses but East Kent NHS Hospitals Trust is one of the largest trusts in the country.
"There has been a lot of deaths there but that does not necessarily give us the full picture."
West London's Hillingdon Hospital was forced to close earlier this month after a substantial Covid outbreak among its staff, with 70 workers having to self-isolate and A&E activities suspended.
Mr Williams said East Kent hospitals were not in a similar scenario. He added: "I believe we are strongly moving forward in the right direction."
Ramsgate councillor Karen Constantine (Lab), a member of the HOSC), described the death toll as "remarkably high" and has called for new safety measures to be introduced, including at Margate's QEQM Hospital.
Gwenneth Bowyer, 89, tragically died from Covid-19 last week after contracting the virus at the Ramsgate Road site.
Mrs Bowyer, from Hassall Reach in Canterbury, had been suffering from abdominal pain and 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.
The East Kent trust says it has a strict set of Covid control measures at its five hospitals.
This includes screens between desk staff and patients, a strict "front door" policy at each site, limiting the number of people coming in, taking temperature checks before entering, providing face masks and hand-cleaning services.
Asymptomatic patients are also being tested on admission after three days and again after seven days. Daily infection control briefings are also taking place on the hospital wards.
Explaining the spike in deaths at East Kent, a spokesman for the trust added: "We know that the initial increase in patients presenting for treatment in East Kent Hospitals began later than in England as a whole, the population of East Kent is significantly older with more comorbidities than the England average and we are one of the largest trusts in the country."
KCC's HOSC committee has asked Mr Williams to urgently provide details on the Covid test results.
A written report has been requested ahead of the next meeting on September 17.