A Rhondda Cynon Taf care home boss has revealed that the second wave of coronavirus has been even more deadly than the first.
Dr Bikram Choudhary, Director of the SilverCrest Group, which owns five care homes across the county, said that Covid-19 had spread like “wildfire” through three of his care homes, claiming the lives of dozens of his residents and infecting 70% of his staff within weeks.
They lost 18 residents at Cwrt Enfys Care Home in Cwm-twrch Isaf during the initial Covid-19 outbreak last April, but Dr Choudhary said that nothing could have prepared them for the “utterly devastating consequences” of the second wave.
He said the virus has now torn through three more homes since December, killing three in every 10 residents and forcing 90% of the staff to self-isolate at home.
He believes that the new, more infectious strain of coronavirus may be to blame for the scale of the outbreaks the second time round.
The new Kent variant is said to spread 70 per cent more quickly and is now the most dominant variant in Wales.
Dr Choudhary said: “It has been devastating and demoralising and very, very stressful for everyone involved.
"To lose residents is deeply upsetting as some have been with us for a very long time. It’s very, very sad.
“Around 25-30% of residents who were infected have died where we have had outbreaks.
"We thought we had seen the worst after the first wave but the second wave has been much more devastating and aggressive.
“Yes, we have better knowledge and more PPE than the first time round but it has spread much more quickly.
"We have been running on the bare minimum and it has been all hands on deck as this was the only way we were able to survive.
“Our employees have literally saved our homes from closing. We were very close to having to move residents and it was only our staff who offered to come and help us out that allowed us to go on and continue.
“From our admin staff, handymen, kitchen staff and carers – they all went above and beyond and did absolutely everything that was needed.”
SilverCrest’s Ty Nant care home in Tonypandy suffered its first outbreak in October. It was closely followed by Mill View in Pentre in December and Morgana Court and Lodge in Bridgend last month.
The Hollies in Pontypridd is the only care home in the group not to have seen an outbreak of the virus.
Dr Choudhary added: “We have two buildings at Morgana Court and despite all our best efforts, it spread right through both.
“We had a couple of cases one week, a few more the next, and by the following week it just exploded and we had 90% of residents and staff affected. It is incredibly quick.
“We were only able to manage because our other care homes could help out. We didn’t have any external support we had to manage this ourselves.
“Across the five homes, we employ between 350 and 400 staff. As many as 60-70% have tested positive. We have seen first-hand the distress this disease brings, it is very difficult.”
Care Forum Wales, which represents almost 500 independent social care providers said that the SilverCrest group's experience is one that is mirrored across the social care sector.
Mario Kreft, chair of Care Forum Wales, said: “Across Wales, care homes that battled and succeeded in keeping out Covid during the first wave have fallen victim to this more aggressive, super strain of the disease.
"The pressure on care workers and their managers is absolutely immense and many are concerned this crisis is not over.
“This is not a time to relax and become complacent with social distancing. Community transmission remains rampant and we must take our responsibilities seriously to protect lives and prevent the vulnerable in every way possible until this nightmare really has ended.”
Dr Choudhary said that another challenge facing the care homes is that some families and relatives want to continue visiting their loved-ones through the pandemic.
He said: “The vast majority of relatives are very understanding. However, some do not realise the gravity of the situation and our duty of care to everyone we care for.
“We are allowing visits for palliative reasons but the risk of community transmission is so high.
"It is estimated 2% of the population have the virus and if you’re allowing in 30 visitors a day, you have to sanitise that room repeatedly and there is still high risk of one of those visitors will pass on the virus.
“We feel by allowing visitors we will be significantly increasing the risk of transmission and we have seen first-hand how quickly it can take hold, we don’t want to be in that situation again.”
The vaccination programme has given the care home boss some hope for the future although he said the timing of the delivery is deeply regrettable.
“We’ve had good take-up for the vaccination programme but unfortunately for us it has come too late,” he said.
“We had outbreaks in October, December and January. The vaccination programme is being rolled out now and if it had been three month earlier – or even a month earlier – it could have made a big difference.”