Health Matters – January 2022

Three Issues in this month’s Health Matters
The Omicron Variant
• Restrictions Going Forward
• Our Brain when we’re Asleep

1. The Omicron Variant – Let’s start by reminding ourselves what has happened with Covid variants – first there was Alpha that started in Kent, it was followed by Beta that started in South Africa and then Delta which started in India. Each variant was more contagious than the previous one – but tended to be less serious. And in December, we were hit by the Omicron variant – the most contagious yet!

With all these variants the highest level of daily cases that we saw in St Albans was in January last year; it was 770 per 100,000. With Omicron, our peak was on DEC 22nd – it was 1,804 – more than double. As at the week commencing Jan 17 the case rate in St Albans had dropped to 813 – still high, but almost 1,000 below the peak! And we’ve gone back to being below the Hertfordshire average – Watford is over 1,200. Hertsmere is close to 1,100 and Stevenage is just over 900!

And with regard to hospitalisations – at peak our local hospitals averaged around 400 people in hospital – right now, the average is around 70. That’s still quite high and is double the pre-Omicron level; but it’s around one-sixth of the peak. 72% of the people in our hospitals were not fully vaccinated.

But here’s the most interesting fact – from the start of the Delta variant to its peak was around six weeks; with Omicron it was just three!

2. So what does this mean for 2022? – This really comes down to a simple question – what is the probability of another variant? There certainly will be more variants but the key point is this – Omicron is quite probably the last variant of concern! And that means that, from the Spring, things are likely to return to normality. Sure, we’ll need to live with Covid for some time to come; and boosters are likely to be with us for a long while. But if there are no new variants of concern (right now that’s a better than evens probability) then that’s good news for us all.

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And that’s what’s behind the new restrictions – One of the interesting facts about the Omicron variant is that it doesn’t last as long as previous variants; people are typically feeling much better after just 5 days as opposed to 10 days with the Delta variant! . And that’s the reason that the isolation period has been reduced; as long as people test negative on the evening of day 5 and the morning of day 6 then they’re safe to go out; that change happened on Monday of this week (the 17th )

Apart from that, Plan B restrictions will end next week (w/c26th Jan; that means that work from home advice will end, as will the need for Covid passports at large venues. I addition face coverings will no longer be mandatory and the need for masks in secondary schools ends tomorrow (20th Jan). Isn’t it great to end a report that is dominated by Covid on good news!

3. Sleep & the Brain
Have you ever noticed the ducks in Verulamium Park – they sleep with one eye open! That’s because they’re monitoring their environment for danger in their sleep. And now recent research shows that our human brains monitor our surroundings during sleep too. We have our eyes shut so we rely on hearing rather than use the ducks’ strategy of sight! During sleep, our brain goes into a “standby mode” and is continually processing information – if the brain assesses there is danger it’ll probably wake you up!

So the sleeping brain faces a difficult balancing act all night long! To protect sleep, it has to suppress harmless sounds, like your partner turning in late or the sound of raindrops falling on the roof. But it has to be ready to wake you up if a potentially dangerous noise is heard. The latest research shows that unfamiliar sounds while we’re sleeping generate two different types of responses in our brain – these are referred to as micro arousals (where the brain is saying I’m suspicious but don’t wake up) and K-complexes which last longer and may well wake you up depending on the level of danger the brain senses. Over time, the brain gets better at differentiating what’s dangerous and what isn’t.

So next time you have trouble sleeping in a new hotel room you’ll know what’s going on – your brain is busy assessing the danger in this new environment; just give it time and it’ll learn!
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Alan Bellinger
19th January 2022

Alan Bellinger Written by:

Alan is a Trustee of Healthwatch Hertfordshire and very well engaged with all things related to Health & Social Care within the Community. After retirement from a successful career in the private sector (working in both training and Information Technology), Alan wanted to get involved in supporting local health issues and has an excellent understanding of what it takes to ensure a great patient experience, Alan has lived in St Albans for well over 65 years; he is a widower with two children and he especially enjoys the company of his five grandchildren – four of whom live in the local area.

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