Middlesbrough’s public health chief has said the town’s high covid infection rate was “a wake up call”.

Earlier this week, it was confirmed that the borough currently has the second highest rate in England – despite the number of new cases dropping slowly.

It comes at a time the council has introduced extra testing, after a case of the South African covid variant was reported last week.

The site – for walk-in or drive-through – is still open at the Parkway Centre for any adult living in Coulby Newham or Marton, or for regular visitors to the shopping centre, on Thursday and Friday.

The relatively high rate has been a concern for public health chiefs and councillors alike in the past fortnight.

South Tees Director of Public Health Mark Adams told the latest health scrutiny panel the numbers of cases still coming through was “concerning” – despite a fall since last month.

Marton East independent Cllr Tom Mawston called the rate – which stood at 292.9 cases per 100,000 people in the week to Wednesday – a “dark cloud”.

Mr Adams said things were heading in the right direction – but admitted to councillors there was frustration in trying to pin down reasons behind the stubbornly high numbers.

Addressing the situation, Mr Adams said: “Our rate is concerning at present. As of Wednesday it was 292 per 100,000 of population and last weekend Middlesbrough did have the highest infection rate in the country.

“What I would say is our rate has come down a lot from the peak in early January of 676, but it isn’t falling as quickly as in some other areas.”

Why does he think Middlesbrough’s rate is so high?

Mr Adams continued: “Different boroughs have seen their infection rates rise and fall at different times and we don’t yet fully understand all the reasons. Middlesbrough’s higher population density could well be a factor.

“The more people that come into contact with each other in any setting, the more likely covid will spread. There are a whole range of factors linked to deprivation and demographics that can influence the situation.

“What’s important is that we monitor it extremely closely and do all we can to protect one another.”

Speaking to councillors on Middlesbrough’s Health Scrutiny Panel earlier this week, Mr Adams expanded: “The outbreaks we have found have been less than 10 people – they’ve been small numbers.

“There haven’t been big outbreaks other than in care homes – but that’s no different to other areas due to the regular testing there.

“I think we’re doing everything we can do.

“And I don’t think there is an area of work we’re not doing which we should be.”

Does he have any specific advice to people in relation to Middlesbrough’s current rate?

Mr Adams continued: “If anything our high numbers should act as a wake-up call.

“It’s been a long haul for everyone, but it’s true that the basic public health advice still stands. Stay at home as much as possible. Definitely work at home if you can. And consider carefully whether you really need to pop to the shop as often.

“Every time someone leaves home they need to be aware that the more contact they have with people they don’t live with, the more likely they are to be infected or infect someone else.

“One thing I must stress is the importance of isolating should someone test positive or be identified as a contact.”

Mr Adams said that people should be “isolation ready” in case they tested positive or were instructed to stay at home – ensuring they have what they need and potentially someone to deliver items to their door.

“Test, test, test was an early mantra of lockdown but isolate, isolate, isolate is the crucial aspect,” he continued.

“That’s how we stop the spread and prevent the infection being passed on to someone who is at high risk.”

Middlesbrough Council has worked hard to extend Test and Trace Self-Isolation Support payments and has a local scheme which is able to support people struggling financially to self isolate. The information is available on the council’s website.

“I’d like to again thank the overwhelming majority of people for following the rules,” he continued.

“But we all must respect the rules and not come up with reasons to bend them. Every time someone breaks the rules they risk setting off a chain reaction that leaves people infected and potentially requiring hospital treatment or worse.

“I know it’s tempting as the weather improves ever so slightly to venture further afield and have a day out, but that shouldn’t be happening now. Life isn’t yet ready to return to normal. The rules are in place to protect us all and the sooner we can get our rates down the sooner things will be relaxed.”

How many contacts would he expect a general covid case to infect?

Mr Adams said: “The numbers of contacts a positive case will have obviously depends on their circumstances and routines.

“What is clear is that the virus can spread quickly and disrupt many lives. A small number of infections can soon lead to lots of people requiring to isolate.

“People who can’t work from home are more likely to come into contact with a higher number of people. That is why we’re encouraging them to come forward for regular, rapid tests at one of our community sites.

“We know the virus spreads quickly among close contacts and therefore everything we can do to find cases and support them and their close contacts to isolate is important.”

A new pilot scheme

At Tuesday’s Health Scrutiny Panel, criticism of the national test and trace service – which is mainly run by private firms such as SERCO – was sounded by Labour group leader Matt Storey.

Mr Adams said that the system was working better than it had – and announced that the council would be piloting its own test and trace scheme from next month.

“We’re piloting picking up cases from the national test and trace system after eight hours,” he said.

“We’ll be the first in the North-east to be doing that from March 1 – wherever there’s been a possibility to pilot and try something, we’ve done it.

“We’re doing as much as we possibly can, and hopefully we’ll either find something we’ve missed we can tighten up on to get the rate lower, or we’ll continue to see that slightly slower reduction.”

A coronavirus vaccine
(Image: Ian Cooper / Teesside Live)

Reports suggest Boris Johnson wants to immediately reopen all schools nationally from March 8.

The health chief added his concern was Middlesbrough’s rates would still be “too high” when lockdown was eased.

“The critical thing is to be as low as we possibly can be when lockdown ends,” added Mr Adams.

“All the local contact tracing has more effect when the rates are lower because you can point to where the infection came from, rather than it being from any one of a number of different avenues.

“It’s really important we get our rates down.

“There is certainly nothing, in any other area that I’m aware of, that we’re not doing.

“But it is concerning.”

How have the public responded to the extra testing in Coulby Newham?

A case of the South Africa variant of covid was found in Middlesbrough after random genetic sequencing from Public Health England, from a test carried out at James Cook University Hospital.

Thousands living in parts of TS7 and TS8 have so far been for a covid test at the Parkway Centre to try and identify the potential spread of the variant – but while any positive tests will isolate as normal, the council won’t find out if there were any more cases of the variant until at least next month.

On testing, Mr Adams said: “The early numbers have been really encouraging. In the region of 2,000 people came forward for tests during the first three days the site opened. Regardless of variants, extra testing helps us understand more about the spread. And the more people we can find that need to isolate, the better chance we have of driving the rate down further.

“I’d continue to encourage anyone who lives in or around Coulby Newham and Marton, or regularly visits the Parkway Centre, to come forward for a test in the car park opposite KFC, between 9am and 3pm.

“At the moment the site will be there up to and including Friday.

“We’ll update people later this week if that will be extended.

“For everyone else around Middlesbrough, it’s crucial that they book a free test online or by calling 119 should they develop symptoms. We have lots of testing capacity in the town. It’s so important that people respond to symptoms.”

Testing in Middlesbrough

The Parkway Centre test site was set up in direct response to the case of the South African variant at the unit in car park 2, opposite KFC and Aldi. The postcode is TS8 0TW.

The centre is open Thursday and Friday (February 18 and 19) between 9am and 3pm. There is no requirement to book in advance, but those being tested must register their details using a barcode provided at the site.

The new walk-through Covid testing centre at Pallister Park
(Image: Ian Cooper / Teesside Live)

The following sites in Middlesbrough offer testing for anyone with symptoms of covid-19:

  • Cannon Park (Drive-through, 8am-8pm, seven days a week)
  • Teesside University Printworks car park, Woodlands Road (Walk-through, 8am-8pm, seven days a week)
  • Ormesby Road, Pallister Park (Walk-through, 8am-8pm, seven days a week)
  • Viewley Centre car park, Hemlington (Drive-through, Monday – Tuesday, 9am-3pm)
  • Cargo Fleet Lane (Drive-through currently Wednesday – Sunday, 9am-3pm).

The symptoms of covid-19 are a high temperature, a new, continuous cough and a loss/change to the sense of smell or taste. Tests should be booked via www.nhs.uk/coronavirus or by calling 119.

If a person tests positive, has any symptoms, or is contact traced following contact with someone who tests positive, they should self-isolate immediately.

Community testing

In addition to testing for those with symptoms, Middlesbrough Council is currently offering free rapid tests for people without symptoms. This testing is particularly aimed at those who can’t work from home and therefore come into contact with more people.

One in three people with covid-19 do not display symptoms. Community testing can help find more people who are infected to help to stop the spread.

Testing is available at:

  • Middlesbrough Sports Village – Wednesday to Sunday
  • North Ormesby Hub – From Monday to Friday
  • Newport Hub – From Tuesday to Saturday.

Community tests can be booked via www.middlesbrough.gov.uk/communitytesting.

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