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Thursday, Feb 25, 2021

COVID-19 infection rate plummets in England, two studies reveal

COVID-19 infection rate plummets in England, two studies reveal

Experts welcome the drop - but say the research "lays bare unacceptable socioeconomic and ethnic inequalities within our society".

Two wide-scale COVID-19 surveys have found that cases are falling in England, confirming that lockdown is working to suppress the virus.

Imperial College London's REACT study - one of the largest and most authoritative on coronavirus - found that infections had fallen by more than two-thirds since the last time it reported in mid-January.

Public Health England's weekly surveillance report also indicated that infections and hospital admissions fell across all regions between 8 and 14 February.

Last time it did the survey, REACT found that 1 in 63 people currently had coronavirus. But following the latest research, it estimates that one in 196 people are infected.

This means that infections are now at a similar level to where they were when REACT reported in September.

The researchers estimate that the national R number for England is between 0.69 and 0.76, meaning the outbreak is decreasing across the country.

Meanwhile, PHE's surveillance report shows that case rates dropped in all age groups and across all regions, with the highest rate of infection among 30 to 39-year-olds at 192.5 per 100,000.

Case rates are now lowest in the South West at 87.4 per 100,000 and highest in the East Midlands at 176.7 per 100,000.

Hospital admissions for the virus have dropped from 19.4 per 100,000 in the previous week to 14.64 during the latest week.

The highest numbers of hospital admissions are in the West Midlands, at a rate of 20.58, the survey shows.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, PHE's medical director, cautioned that infection levels were still higher than in September.

"The number of new infections is higher than the end of September and remains concerning. This could increase very quickly if we do not follow the current measures," she said.

But she added: "Our efforts are working as case rates, hospitalisation rates and deaths are slowly falling."

Professor Paul Elliott, director of the programme at Imperial, called the REACT results "encouraging", saying they showed that "lockdown measures are effectively bringing infections down".

He added: "It's reassuring that the reduction in numbers of infections occurred in all ages and in most regions across the country."

This uniform decrease in age groups means that there is no evidence that the vaccination programme is behind the fall in infections. If that was the case, the researchers said, they would expect to see a bigger drop among people aged 65 and over.

REACT tested more than 85,000 volunteers between 4 and 13 of February to examine levels of infection in the general population.

Its large size makes its findings significant, as does the fact that it had previously reported no drop in infections 10 days into lockdown.

However, the researchers warned that although the trend was good, the level of cases was still too high for comfort, as lots of patients continued to be admitted into hospital.

They warned that any route out of lockdown needed to be "closely monitored". The prime minister is due to set out his roadmap for releasing restrictions on 22 February.

Experts welcomed the news, but said the REACT study posed questions for Boris Johnson ahead of his announcement, because it indicated possible regional and ethnic inequalities in the fall in cases.

The researchers found that "large household size, living in a deprived neighbourhood, and Asian ethnicity were all associated with increased prevalence".

Dr Tom Wingfield, Senior Clinical Lecturer and Honorary Consultant Physician at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said: "This again lays bare the unacceptable socioeconomic and ethnic inequalities within our society.

"In retrospect, the easing of lockdown restrictions after the first COVID-19 wave in 2020 was too early and took place at a time when the NHS Test and Trace system had limited coverage and was not functioning optimally.

"We need to learn from this as we lift the current lockdown measures and not make the same mistakes again."

According to REACT, although the number of infections fell everywhere, the biggest fall was in the south, with a very dramatic fall in London.

The areas with the highest prevalence are now the North West and North East. In the North East, the REACT team estimate that R is probably above 1.

This repeats the pattern that emerged following the first lockdown, although experts noted that the other large infection survey, which is conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), did not find a similar regional trend.

"These regional differences are something to keep an eye on as more data emerge from REACT and from the ONS survey," said Professor Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics at The Open University.

"We're so lucky here to have both of these surveys, that provide relatively unbiased estimates of infections across England, so that we can see how they compare.

"Most countries of the world don't even have one such survey."

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