Hospital chief warns against ‘second wave’ of virus

Maria Kane (inset) is chief executive of North Middlesex University Hospital in Edmonton
Maria Kane (inset) is chief executive of North Middlesex University Hospital in Edmonton

Housekeeper at North Middlesex University Hospital among victims of pandemic, reports James Cracknell

The boss of North Middlesex University Hospital has thanked local residents for their support during the Covid-19 pandemic, saying staff there have worked in an “emotionally and physically taxing environment” over the past few weeks.

Maria Kane, chief executive of the NHS trust that runs the Edmonton hospital, said the darkest days were likely over but urged people to continue following government guidelines to help avoid a “second wave” of coronavirus infections.

Speaking to the Dispatch, Maria said: “At the peak we had 13 wards for patients who were Covid-19 positive, but this has come down now to eight. We have had so many people treated here who have been able to go back home and that is really positive.”

As a hospital in outer London, where Covid-19 spread faster than other areas, there was a rapid increase in admissions at the end of March, building to a peak in early April. In total there were 234 coronavirus deaths at North Mid up to the end of April.

“We were hit quite hard quite early on. It didn’t end up being as bad as some predictions, but compared to our usual intensive care capacity of 18 beds, we had a surge up to 41 beds at one point. It takes a huge amount of time to provide that capacity – each bed needs access to a ventilator, oxygen piping, and a whole range of staff.

“We started using side rooms but we soon ran out of space and we began to isolate different parts of the hospital, which became a huge job, on top of obtaining the PPE [personal protective equipment] we needed for infection control.”

Elective surgeries were postponed so that operating theatres could be utilised for Covid-19 patients, while visitors were banned from coming in to reduce their risk of contracting the virus.

“There is an impact on staff – they are seeing far more people die than they are used to seeing, it is far more intense. They are wearing kit that is quite heavy and restrictive and it becomes difficult for them logistically. It is an emotionally and physically taxing environment to work in.”

Support has come from unexpected places. Pilots and cabin crew, off work as planes were grounded, helped set up a “first class lounge” so staff could relax on their breaks. “They can talk though any stressful situations and have a bit of down time. It is really amazing.”

At the peak, nearly one third of North Mid’s entire staff roster was signed off work, either because they were showing Covid-19 symptoms, their family members were showing symptoms, or because they were among one of the vulnerable groups being advised to self-isolate. Recently retired staff were brought back to fill gaps, while other medical professionals were retrained to meet demand.

Many NHS workers from around the country have themselves died from the disease, and Maria told the Dispatch that sadly North Mid was no exception. Cheryl Williams, a housekeeper at the hospital for eleven years, died last month after contracting coronavirus. “We are devastated,” said Maria. “It is heartbreaking for us all.”

The battle to obtain the required amount of PPE has been a focus of government criticism during the pandemic. Maria said she was not aware of any staff at North Mid being forced to wear improvised equipment while on the job, as has been seen at some hospitals.

“I will be honest and say the supply chain was quite sticky at the start, and we weren’t sure what was coming in, but in the last few weeks it has really got better. We have always been able to adhere to the guidelines [for wearing PPE].”

Another issue has been testing capacity. At the end of April a drive-through testing facility for key workers was opened at Lee Valley Athletics Centre in Pickett’s Lock. For staff at North Mid, a testing centre is operating from Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – which has also hosted temporary antenatal services, including ultrasounds, to help pregnant women avoid hospital.

Is Maria confident the worst is now over? “We have to be prepared for a potential second wave,” she warned. “This is such a new phenomenon. We are learning all the time about how to treat it, and we are participating in a major research programme.

“The support and the good wishes we have received have been really heart-warming. The best thing people can do now is continue to stay at home – it is about short-term pain for long-term gain.”

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