2020 will go down in history as ‘The year of COVID-19’. For many of us, life has changed beyond all recognition. It stopped the world in its tracks, and Portsmouth was no exception. We rapidly adjusted to lockdown – staying in our homes, only leaving for essential trips. Not seeing loved ones. Missing special occasions: weddings, funerals, social gathering & holidays. Football was cancelled. ‘Furlough’ became a common word, and parents became teachers overnight. Face masks and socially distanced queues became the norm.
As a local GP, I have experienced COVID-19 from a different perspective. I kept going to work, and my children stayed in school. As a practice, we continued to care for our patients throughout the pandemic, rapidly adjusting the way we work to limit face to face contact and keep staff and patients safe. GPs now conduct most consultations by telephone, video, or online e-consultation via the practice website. In ‘normal times’, these technological advances would have taken years to implement. Staff and patients have, on the whole, adjusted well to this new way of working. It is not always a substitute for a face to face assessment, and some patients do need to come into the surgery. We are limiting appointments, to allow for social distancing and cleaning between patients. Staff are shielded behind reception and may be wearing face masks. Patients are encouraged to wear face coverings when they come into the building. Doctors may be in surgical scrubs and will be wearing masks, aprons, gloves and possibly face shields. We are still advising patients to avoid attending unless they have a booked appointment or cannot deal with their query online or by telephone.
There are many questions about COVID-19. I will do my best to answer some of the most common queries that are asked:
How do I get tested for COVID-19?
Anyone (over the age of five) with symptoms is eligible for COVID-19 swab testing. Symptoms include a fever over 37.8°C, a new, continuous cough or a change in taste/smell. Those with symptoms and family members should self-isolate until the result is available. To request a COVID-19 test, you can register online via www.NHS.uk and you will be contacted to book testing at the Tipner drive-through test centre. Home test kits can be sent out for those that cannot attend.
Blood antibody tests for COVID-19 can give an indication of past infection with the virus, but are not yet available to the general population. It is not yet clear how reliable these tests are, and whether the antibodies offer protection against future re-infection
Will there be a vaccine for COVID-19?
Several research institutions are busy developing and trialling a vaccine. Oxford University is currently recruiting volunteers nationwide for their study. The trial is designed to establish if the vaccine triggers an antibody response that protects an individual against contracting COVID-19.
What is the ‘R’ Number?
The Reproduction (R) number is a way of measuring the spread of the virus. If the R number is kept below one, then each infected individual is, on average, spreading the virus to less than one person. This should ultimately lead to the disappearance of the virus. The R number published on June 12th was 0.8-1 in the South East of England and under 1 across the UK. There are also falling rates of new infections, hospital admissions and deaths. The Government is basing many of its decisions on easing lockdown restrictions on the R number.
How likely is a ‘second wave’?
No one can be sure, since this is a new virus. It is very different to the influenza virus, a cause of previous pandemics in history, so scientists cannot predict how COVID-19 will behave. There have been small increases in the number of cases in China, Iran, and South Korea, but so far in Europe, the numbers of people infected has continued to fall, despite restrictions being eased. For now, the advice is to continue to work from home if you can, wear face masks on public transport and in enclosed spaces, and maintain social distancing.
How can I work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The government has produced 8 guides covering a range of different types of work. These are available on the GOV.UK website. Further guidance will be published as more businesses re-open.
I love being a GP, and feel it is a privilege to do the job that I do. The public has shown such gratitude to the NHS, and I hope the respect shown will continue once the pandemic passes. I am grateful for the amazing team at TMGP, which has pulled together to continue to deliver excellent care for our Southsea patients during such a challenging time. We hope that some of the innovative new ways of working can continue, complementing the traditional way that we deliver patient care.
Dr Penny Wilson is a GP Partner at Trafalgar Medical Group Practice.
She lives locally with her husband and two daughters.