MEDICAL staff who care for York’s sickest Covid patients say they fear the relaxation of social distancing rules over Christmas could lead to a third wave of the virus.

Dr Joe Carter, the consultant in charge of intensive care at York Hospital, and Elaine Hunter, the hospital’s lead critical care nurse, both fear there could be a surge in new cases in the new year. In an exclusive interview with The Press today, both were open about their fears.

“The reality is that levels of the disease are quite high in the community now, even after lockdown,” Dr Carter said. “There is some anxiety about Christmas.” Mrs Hunter added: “We suspect that come mid-January there will potentially be an increase.”

Both stress that during the second wave of the virus, the number of really serious cases has never got quite as high as during the first wave.

At the peak of the first wave, York’s 17-bed intensive care unit was struggling to cope with 28 severely ill coronavirus patients.

Non-Covid intensive care patients had all been moved to an overflow unit in the hospital’s operating theatre recovery area. Even so, staff could only accommodate Covid cases in intensive care by bringing beds closer together.

This time around, there have never been more than 20 serious Covid cases in the unit at any one time.

Staff have also learned a great deal about how to better manage the virus.

York Press:

They are more reluctant to put patients on invasive ventilation, which involves a tube being put down the throat. There’s evidence that is ‘not beneficial’ for patients, except as a last resort, Dr Carter says. Instead, patients are more often given high-pressure oxygen through a face mask.

Medical staff have also learned that sometimes, simple measures like getting a patient to lie on their stomach rather than their back can improve breathing - sometimes dramatically.

Nevertheless, after a pandemic that has already lasted for nine months, both Dr Carter and Mrs Hunter warn that the crisis is still far from over.

They have learned a lot, Dr Carter says. “But this is the same disease, and it is still killing a lot of people.”

Worries about a third wave of coronavirus are exacerbated by the prospect of a surge in the usual winter illnesses - though the hope is that the recent stricter social distancing measures will mean less flu and other serious illnesses than usual this year.

The hospital is also hoping to get a new, modular, six-bed extension to the intensive care unit early next year. The £2.5 million building should be operational by spring, and will greatly increase capacity, Dr Carter said.

Then there is the hope offered by the new vaccine. “I’m optimistic that at some point some return to normality may be possible,” Dr Carter said.