Q&A with Doctor Louise Smith, Director of Public Health
What has been the most important aspect of your role during the Covid-19 pandemic?
One of the most visible, aspects of my role has been around making sure that key messages are getting out to and are understood by the public to prevent the spread of the disease in our county. Over the past eight weeks I have taken part in more than 30 interviews and Q&A sessions on the radio and in our local newspapers. Behind the scenes, the most important part of my role has been to make sure that all of our planning and response is led by the evidence and data available.
The public health team has been giving specialist support to partners in Norfolk and across the region, can you tell us more about that?
The public health team has been working tirelessly to support all our partners in Norfolk starting with providing the data, analysis and evidence for our local area to put numbers to plans - such as how many beds, ventilators or mortuary spaces are needed. We also give health protection advice to support schools, the use and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) and some of our most vulnerable population, such as those who are homeless. We are currently coordinating a health protection response, alongside NHS and social care experts, to ensure care homes can manage any outbreaks.
We have agreed ways our providers of public health services such as the Healthy Child Programme and Smokefree Norfolk can work differently, so they can continue to provide essential services to those who need them. All our public health providers are now offering more ways for people to access services either by phone, web-based resources or one-to-one video consultations. As well as helping the service users, being able to continue to offer assistance helps to keep the pressure off other parts of the system such as GPs and pharmacies.
You will also have seen our wide-ranging information campaigns throughout the outbreak. These have concentrated on explaining the rules clearly and effectively, to prevent the spread of the disease in our county. We have also been developing information to help everyone stay well and resilient during these very challenging times.
Finally, as part of the national effort, our role has extended beyond the county, and we have released a small number of specialist staff full time to support Public Health England’s communicable disease control teams working directly to advise on who needs tests and how to care for people with the infection.
The team is working on data modelling to support the NHS – what does that mean in practice and how will it benefit Norfolk residents?
Models take what we know about a disease and a population and use it to develop an understanding about how that disease might spread. Early in the epidemic the council’s analysts calculated a model to predict how many cases were likely to occur in Norfolk, and throughout we have been comparing this model to the real data as it comes in. This is vitally important so we can make the necessary preparations to look after people, helping us to understand, for example, what capacity is needed in hospitals and intensive care units (ICU). Data modelling is invaluable in situations like the coronavirus pandemic, where time is of the essence.
How will the track and trace scheme work in Norfolk and how will it benefit residents?
One of the ways we can protect the public from infectious diseases, like coronavirus, is through contact tracing. If a person tests positive for coronavirus, Public Health England (PHE) will contact them to identify anyone who has had close contact with them during the time they are considered to be infectious. PHE will then go all out to find these people as soon as possible. Once they have made contact we can then give them the advice they need. We will work locally to help people who have been asked to go into self-isolation, and in situations where a larger number of people are affected.
Has Norfolk had a lower rate of coronavirus cases than the rest of the country? If so, why is this?
Overall in Norfolk our rate of coronavirus has been lower than the UK average, but there are differences between districts with numbers higher in the west. We don’t yet know why and the fact is we won’t have a full picture of the full impact of coronavirus in our county for some time.
In Norfolk we have worked really well together - with residents and communities, local authorities, NHS, the police and businesses - to help stop the spread and protect our county. But this doesn’t mean we can be complacent. The virus will be with us for some time yet and we all need to play our part in protecting each other. We still need everyone to apply common sense to their activities, respecting the social distancing requirements and staying at home wherever possible to protect our county.
Are you worried about other existing health issues which may have faded from public awareness whilst attention is focused on the pandemic?
Yes, it is always a concern that, whilst we are responding to an emergency, other health issues get missed. Across Norfolk we are continuing to provide services for people in need of care and support. It is really important that people know that they can still contact their GP, 111 online or call 111 for help.
It’s been reported that many people are feeling stressed by isolation and having to stay indoors. What is your advice for people who may be experiencing mental health issues?
The current circumstances we are living under are hard for many people, and the restrictions can put added stress onto individuals and families. It’s important to remember that the current restrictions are there to keep us safe, and it won’t be like this forever.
There are things we can all do to help us cope with being at home. Having a regular routine is important and keeping busy with new projects (or picking up old ones!) can help focus your mind on something other than coronavirus. Finding ways to relax is also helpful; there are lots of relaxation, meditation and mindfulness strategies on the internet. It’s also important to feel connected to other people – and that is more challenging when we’re very restricted in face-to-face contact. Catch up with family, friends, community or faith groups by phone or online.
There are also volunteers who can offer check-ins and chats to people who may be struggling on their own (call 0344 8008020). Remember, these are challenging times for most, and it’s OK to not feel OK. Talk to people and let them know how you are feeling.
For people to stay safe, what is the single most important thing they should continue to do?
One of the simplest things we can all do to prevent the spread of the virus is to wash our hands more often, for 20 seconds with soap and water. Where you can’t access soap and water, use hand sanitiser.
The government has also now advised we should wear a cloth face covering when out and about in public indoor spaces. So we should start to wear a cloth face mask or scarf in places such as shops.