‘Christmas was awful’: On the frontline of Omicron at Royal Preston Hospital | Coronavirus

After nearly two years on the Covid frontline, there is one image that haunts Professor Mohammed Munavvar. It is about a visit to the cemetery of Preston, where a friend had been buried.

There he saw an immaculate row of headstones, each planted last year. They were all his patients. He knew every name: “It was terrible, really. It was very traumatic. Even now, I think of this image.

Munavvar is Senior Respiratory Consultant at Royal Preston Hospital in Lancashire. He and his colleagues have treated nearly 5,000 coronavirus patients since March 14, 2020. The vast majority have survived, but many have not. The hospital recorded its 904th death from coronavirus overnight last week.

As ministers talk of encouraging signs that the Omicron wave may be receding in parts of England, staff at Royal Preston are struggling to keep their heads above water.

The hospital has seen the number of Covid patients nearly quadruple since Christmas Day, to 103 when the Guardian visited last week. It is one of the largest hospitals in an area with the highest levels of infection in the UK and two neighboring NHS Trusts have declared critical incidents. Despite a recent slowdown in admissions, “horrendous” levels of staff absence mean the pressure is mounting.

Critical care consultant Dr Shondipon Laha inspects patients’ x-rays with colleagues at the Royal Preston Hospital. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

“Staffing has become more of an issue this wave than it was before,” said Dr Shondipon Laha, a consultant in the intensive care department. “Almost every day, we work to ensure that staffing is adequate. And because our staff are incredibly conscientious, they do. But you wonder how long they can keep doing it.

A Nightingale Field Hospital is being built in the Royal Preston car park as a sign of what is to come. One of only eight in England, the 100-bed facility will serve the whole of North West England and is expected to be full within weeks. The hospital restaurant and two sports halls are being prepared for emergency relief.

Kelly Fielding, the matron of the Covid ward at Royal Preston Hospital in Lancashire
Kelly Fielding, the Covid ward matron at Royal Preston Hospital in Lancashire, fears how staff will cope with another wave. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

“It kicks you in the stomach,” said Kelly Fielding, the matron of the Covid ward, as carts of lasagna, sandwiches and fruit are wheeled to the beds of her 34 patients. “You think, ‘Here we go again.’ My main fear as a manager was how the staff would feel about this. Psychologically, are they prepared for another wave?

A 30-year-old doctor, Munavvar said he and his colleagues felt like “sheep being dragged to the slaughterhouse” during the first year of the pandemic, as they were surrounded daily by the disease without the vaccine protection. A lasting memory is going to work each day with a “hollow feeling that at any moment any of us could die,” he said.

Taking shallow breaths behind his oxygen mask, Brian Swindlehurst, 75, said he had “done everything right” trying to avoid Omicron. He wore masks in public, stayed home whenever possible, got the vaccine at the earliest opportunity. Still, Covid caught up with him in the new year, before he could get a wake-up call because he was taking medication for another condition.

Covid caught Brian Swindlehurst, 75, before he could get his recall, but credited his early vaccinations with saving his life
Covid caught Brian Swindlehurst before he could get his recall, but credited his early vaccinations with saving his life. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Swindlehurst will remain in Ward 23 for several nights before he can return home to Christine, his wife of 54 years. A whiteboard next to his bed gives a positive prognosis in two words: “It’s better”. It’s thanks to the vaccine, he says: “It could have been a different story. It saves your life.

Almost half of Royal Preston’s 103 Covid patients are either unvaccinated or of unknown status – the latter usually being those too sick to ask. About 30% are double-jabbed and 20% have had a booster jab. In the intensive care unit, five of six coronavirus patients did not have a vaccine.

Behind soundproof glass that dampens the hum and beeps of life-saving devices, a man in his thirties is hooked up to a fan, his left leg hanging limply on the edge of his bed. He had not been vaccinated. “Those who are not vaccinated are the ones who get extremely sick,” Munavvar said.

Staff nurses at work in the Covid ward at the Royal Preston Hospital
Staff nurses at work in the Covid ward at the Royal Preston Hospital. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

The success of the vaccination program is clear in the numbers: at the height of the first wave, there were around 60 patients in the intensive care unit at Royal Preston and only the lucky ones got away with it. Today there are six, in addition to several others recovering long-term from Covid.

Most unvaccinated patients aren’t ‘anti-vaxxer’ conspiracy theorists, doctors say. These are either younger people who didn’t expect to get seriously ill, or people who say they didn’t. “It stresses out and saddens a lot of staff because it’s frustrating,” said Dr. Laha, an executive with the National Intensive Care Society.

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