Rising coronavirus cases are having a “significant impact” on communities and services in the Highlands, the region’s health board said on Friday.
NHS Highland recorded 883 new cases of Covid-19 on December 28, four times the daily average seen last week and the highest number of new cases in one day since the start of the pandemic, more than double its previous highest daily figure.
The health board has seen 1720 new cases since Boxing Day, which is higher than what it had been seeing on a weekly basis.
As a result, NHS Highland had had to close wards due to positive cases among patients and staff. Almost half of the region’s care homes are also closed.
Dr Boyd Peters, medical director for NHS Highland, said: “Feedback from our contact tracers tells us that social gatherings and travel are having the biggest impact on case numbers in our area.
“We have already seen an increase in the area which we believe is linked to people travelling for Christmas and we are expecting the same to happen as people travel and meet up for New Year.
“The threat and impact of Covid remains a significant concern as modelling tells us a big increase in community infections now will cause serious issues in late January, both for individual patients and for the staffing of services.
“Our health and care system is fragile, the loss of staff to this variant through testing positive or the need to isolate has a huge impact on our ability to deliver the services needed across our patch and this is already a challenge.”
The NHS Highland warning comes an expert warned high numbers of coronavirus cases are likely to see the NHS have to deal with a “substantial wave of hospitalisations” in the first two months of 2022.
Professor James Chalmers, a consultant respiratory physician at Dundee University’s school of medicine, warned the health service is already “under massive pressure, even taking Covid to one side”.
But with record numbers of cases now being recorded in the UK and in Scotland – where 16,857 new infections were announced on Thursday – Professor Chalmers said he is “really concerned” about the impact this will have on the NHS.
Despite progress being made over the last 12 months with vaccination and more treatments for Covid becoming available, the arrival of the new, rapidly spreading Omicron variant has resulted in a situation that the expert said “unfortunately feels very similar to last year”.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme, Professor Chalmers said: “At the moment through December we have seen very high case numbers, as we did last year, and we only started to see that feed through in Scotland to very high numbers in hospital in the later part of December and the early part of January.
“We’re starting to see an increase in the number of people in hospital in Scotland, we’re above 800 people in hospital at the moment with coronavirus, nationally hospital admissions have risen by 61% across the UK.
“So there are unfortunately similarities with last January. We are expecting, based on Government modelling, a substantial wave of hospitalisations through January and February.”
While he said Omicron “does seem to be a bit of a different beast”, with less severe illness meaning people stay in hospital for a shorter period of time, Prof Chalmers added: “Unfortunately the number of cases are so high the sheer volume of cases may cancel out any reduction in severity that we are seeing with this virus.”
Hogmanay celebrations are set to be muted across Scotland heading into 2022, with traditional street parties cancelled and people told to stay at home amid the surging spread of coronavirus.
Large scale events, including Edinburgh’s Party at the Bells on Princes Street and Stonehaven’s fireballs, are prohibited as part of new Covid-19 measures announced by Nicola Sturgeon last week.
New curbs on hospitality venues have also come into force, while people are being urged to “stay at home as much as possible” until at least the first week of January.
Any meet-ups must be limited to a maximum of three households.