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COVID-19 - Variant testing in Walsall

Extensive surveillance of COVID-19 has identified a small number of cases of the COVID-19 variant first discovered in South Africa, in localities across England, including an area in Walsall, which can’t be traced back to international travel.

There is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, or that the regulated vaccines would not protect against it, but research indicates that it does transmit from person to person more easily. Read the full press release (12 February) in our Newsroom

 

Update: 16 February 2020

As was reported on Friday 12 February, Walsall Council is aware of a further instance of the South African variant form of COVID-19 in the borough following routine sequencing of positive COVID-19 tests.

The newer case is not linked to the previously identified case in the borough or to international travel and further targeted testing is underway to gather as much information as possible to aid better understanding of the new variant and help suppress and control the spread of COVID-19 in Walsall. This second wave of enhanced testing is concentrated in parts of the Pleck ward, see the map below

Enhanced testing in the first area of interest (WS2) has now been completed and Walsall Council would like to thank residents and businesses in the area for their cooperation. The drop-in symptom-free testing centre for the South African variant at Walsall College will continue to operate. The testing centre at Forest Arts Centre remains open 8.30am – 1.30pm until Friday 19 February. 

 

If you have received a test kit and need further support in registering, please follow the below link to the step by step guide.

Step by step registration guide

 

Use the postcode checker to check whether you should be tested for the South African variant

Check your postcode

 

FAQs

Please see the below list of answers to frequently asked questions. 

If you are a business, information has been provided below whether you are operating within the targeted testing area or operating outside the targeted testing area but employing staff who live in the targeted testing area.

Who should be tested for the South African variant?

All residents, over the age of 18, who are living or working in the targeted testing area are strongly encouraged to take a COVID-19 test as soon as possible. Please see the map above or use the postcode checker to confirm whether you are in the targeted testing area.

I am in a targeted testing area, what should I do?

If you are in a targeted testing area, and you do not have any symptoms of COVID-19, you should get a symptom-free test for the variant as soon as possible. You must also continue to follow the national lockdown guidelines and Hands, Face, Space precautions at all times. 

If you are a critical worker, or you need to go out for essential reasons such as essential shopping or caring for others, a mobile variant testing site is available for you to take the test located at Walsall College Wisemore Campus (Littleton Street West, Walsall, WS2 8ES). Please make your way to the rear carpark where testing is carried out. The testing is not being conducted inside the college building. You do not need to call to book. The testing is being carried out by Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care, and not Walsall College. The testing site offers a drive-through option where you remain in your car and follow the directions from health officers for your test and a walk-through option available for those residents who do not have a vehicle. The testing site is open seven days a week from 8am–4pm. This is the only testing site that you should attend, as it tests residents without symptoms specifically for the South African variant, as well as the original COVID-19 virus. 

If you do not need to leave your home for essential reasons, you must continue to stay home in line with national lockdown guidance and use the home testing kit delivered to your door. All households in the targeted testing area will be directly contacted at their doorstep and will be provided with home testing kits for every member of the household aged 18 years and over from a public health or licensed officer. Clear instructions for their use will be included. 

If you develop any COVID-19 symptoms (a high temperature, continuous cough, loss or change to smell or taste) no matter how mild, you must self-isolate and book a standard COVID-19 test through the NHS, via the NHS COVID-19 App, online or by calling 119. 

I live in supported accommodation within the targeted testing area. How do I get tested?

All households and residences with the targeted testing area will be directly contacted at their doorstep and will be provided with home testing kits for every member of the household aged 18 years and over from a public health or licensed officer. Clear instructions for their use will be included. Please see the guidance above: I am in a targeted testing area, what should I do?

Will home test kits be delivered to flats?

Yes. Every effort will be made to access all properties so all households in the identified areas receive a home test kit.

Are you testing care homes?

Any care homes in the targeted testing area will be provided with tests for residents and staff and these will be sent to labs to be sequenced.

I am in a targeted testing area, can I book a test through the NHS?

No. If you live or work in a targeted testing area and you have no COVID-19 symptoms, please see the guidance above for information about how to arrange a symptom-free variant test: I am in a targeted testing area, what should I do? 

The NHS test booking system is for people with symptoms or those who have been directed by the NHS to book a test as they have been identified as a close contact of a positive case. These tests are sent to a different lab. 

I am NOT in a targeted testing area, what should I do?

If you are not in the targeted testing area, you do not need a specific test but you must please continue to follow national lockdown rules and Hands, Face, Space safety precautions at all times. If you develop any COVID-19 symptoms, (a high temperature, continuous cough, loss or change to smell or taste) no matter how mild, you must self-isolate and book a standard COVID-19 test through the NHS, via the NHS COVID-19 App, online or by calling 119. 

Can I still attend the Walsall Manor Hospital?

Yes. The Walsall Manor Hospital is open as normal. Please continue to attend hospital and vaccination appointments. Residents of all ages are being assured it’s safe for them to visit Walsall Manor Hospital for appointments or treatment if necessary. For more information, please see the Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust website: COVID-19: Help Us Help You at Walsall Manor Hospital. There is no additional lockdown or restrictions within the targeted testing areas — please follow national lockdown guidance for healthcare and public services

I don't live in a targeted testing area, but I work there or am in a support bubble with residents of the area ― should I be tested too?

Yes. Please attend the mobile testing centre located at Walsall College Wisemore Campus (Littleton Street West, Walsall, WS2 8ES), open seven days a week 8am–4pm. The site is both a walk-in and mobile testing site and you do not need to book. This is the only testing sites that you should attend, as it is testing specifically for the South African variant, as well as the original COVID-19 virus. If you are attending the Walsall College Wisemore Campus site, please make your way to the rear carpark where testing is carried out. The testing is not being conducted inside the college building. You do not need to call to book. The testing is being carried out by Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care, and not Walsall College. 

Please see the map above or use the postcode checker to confirm whether you work or are in a support bubble with a person who lives in in the targeted area.

I recently lived or worked in the targeted testing area, but I don't anymore. What should I do?

If you lived or worked in the targeted testing area after 15 December 2020, you should get tested, even if you don't live or work there anymore. Please attend the mobile testing centre located at Walsall College Wisemore Campus (Littleton Street West, Walsall, WS2 8ES), open seven days a week 8am–4pm. The site is both a walk-in and mobile testing site and you do not need to book. This is the only testing sites that you should attend, as it is testing specifically for the South African variant, as well as the original COVID-19 virus. If you are attending the Walsall College Wisemore Campus site, please make your way to the rear car park where testing is carried out. The testing is not being conducted inside the college building. You do not need to call to book. The testing is being carried out by Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care, and not Walsall College. 

Members of my support bubble recently lived or worked in the targeted testing area, but don't anymore. What should I do?

If members of your support bubble lived or worked in the targeted testing area after 25 December 2020 all members of both households (aged 18 and over) should get tested, even if they don't live or work there anymore. Please attend the mobile testing centre located at Walsall College Wisemore Campus (Littleton Street West, Walsall, WS2 8ES), open seven days a week 8am–4pm. The site is both a walk-in and mobile testing site and you do not need to book. This is the only testing sites that you should attend, as it is testing specifically for the South African variant, as well as the original COVID-19 virus. If you are attending the Walsall College Wisemore Campus site, please make your way to the rear carpark where testing is carried out. The testing is not being conducted inside the college building. You do not need to call to book. The testing is being carried out by Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care, and not Walsall College. 

I live or work in a nearby postcode, can I get tested?

No. We are focusing symptom-free variant testing in specific areas, as shown in the map above. However, anyone Walsall who has any symptoms of COVID-19 (a high temperature, continuous cough, loss or change to smell or taste) of course can get a test. This can be booked through the NHS COVID-19 App, online or by calling 119. 

Are there any changes to existing lockdown restrictions?

No. Whether you live or work in a targeted testing area or not, you must continue to follow existing lockdown restrictions. You are required to remain at home unless for permitted, essential reasons.  If you are able to work from home, please do.

What happens after my test?

After your symptom-free COVID variant test, you do not need to self-isolate while you await the results but you must continue to follow national lockdown restrictions as before. You must stay home unless you need to go out for essential reasons such as for work if you cannot work from home, essential shopping or caring for others. If you are required to go out please make sure you keep your distance from anyone you do not live with, wear a face covering and wash your hands frequently.  

Symptom-free COVID variant tests conducted in the new testing centres will be sent to a separate lab from those tests conducted by the NHS for people with symptoms or the routine symptom-free critical worker tests. 

If you have been given a home testing kit, these will be collected by public health or licensed officers and sent to the correct laboratory. You will be given more information about kit collections when your home testing kit is delivered. Please do not post your kit back, as it may not be returned to the laboratory that is testing and sequencing for the South African variant specifically. 

If your test comes back positive for COVID-19, you will be notified and required to self-isolate for 10 days. If your test comes back positive for the South African variant of COVID-19 rather than the original COVID-19 virus, you will be also be contacted by NHS Test and Trace who will conduct more detailed contact tracing. This is so Public Health England can better understand how the variant may have come into the community and whether additional areas in Walsall will need to be targeted for variant testing. 

How long until my test comes back?

Test results showing whether you are positive or negative for COVID-19 will take up to 48 hours to be returned. Genomic sequencing (analysing the test sample for the South African variant) will be carried out after the initial test for positive or negative, and will take a bit longer. 

Can I go to work?

If you are a critical worker living in a targeted testing area and you cannot work from home, you can continue to go to work (even if this is outside the targeted testing area). We strongly recommend that you have  your symptom-free variant test, and you can still go to work after you have been tested for the COVID-19 variant as long as you continue to have no COVID-19 symptoms, or unless your test result comes back positive. 

If your test result comes back positive, you must self-isolate for 10 days. 

If you develop COVID-19 symptoms after you have been tested for the variant, you must self-isolate and book a standard COVID-19 test through the NHS via the NHS COVID-19 App, online or by calling 119. 

If you do not live in a targeted testing area but you work in the targeted testing area, or your work requires you to visit a targeted testing area, you can continue to go to work in line with the above guidance. You should also get tested too, please see the above guidance: ‘I don't live in a targeted testing area, but I work there or am in a support bubble with residents of the area ― should I be tested too?’

Should I be worried?

It is right that we should be cautious about new variants and that people may be anxious in the current climate. Public Health England (PHE) is constantly on the look-out for any new variants, and its ability to identify these early allows for public health interventions to keep people safe.

PHE is investigating a new variant of COVID-19 which originated in South Africa. Viruses often evolve and this is not unusual. PHE carries out this work as a priority to understand the potential risk this variant may cause. It is important to say that there is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, or that the regulated vaccine would not protect against it.

The best way to stop infection is to stick to the rules — wash our hands, wear a face covering and keep our distance from others.

What if I live or work in a targeted testing area and I decide not to get a test?

Although the tests are voluntary, you are encouraged to get a test and you should also follow the guidance on lockdown restrictions, observe the ‘hands, face, space’ rule at all times and self-isolate and get an NHS test if you develop any symptoms.

I have COVID-19 symptoms, what should I do?

No matter where you live, whether you live or work in a targeted testing area or not, if you have COVID-19 symptoms (a high temperature, continuous cough, loss or change to smell or taste), no matter how mild, you must self-isolate and book a standard COVID-19 test through the NHS via the NHS COVID-19 App, online or by calling 119. You should not attempt to take a symptom-free test. 

If you are in a targeted testing area and you have COVID-19 symptoms please do not attend the variant testing sites. You must self-isolate and book a standard COVID-19 test through the NHS via the NHS COVID-19 App, online or by calling 119. You should not attempt to take a symptom-free test. 

Why are you only testing adults and not children?

The guidance on who to test was identified by PHE and national test and trace teams.

For businesses in the targeted testing areas

If your business is in a targeted testing area and you have staff that cannot work from home, your staff can continue to come to work as normal (please see the above guidance ‘Can I go to work?’ and ‘I don't live in a targeted testing area, but I work there or am in a support bubble with residents of the area ― should I be tested too?’).

We will contact all businesses within the targeted testing areas.

'Drop and collect' test kits will be delivered to your premises for your staff as a one-off test.

Any employees who are working from home and have not been in the area do not require testing.  

Any staff that develop COVID-19 symptoms, (a high temperature, continuous cough, loss or change to smell or taste) no matter how mild, must self-isolate and book a standard COVID-19 test through the NHS, via the NHS COVID-19 App, online or by calling 119. They should not attempt to take a symptom-free test.

If you have any queries please contact us walsall.healthprotection@nhs.net or phone 01922 65 8065.

I own a business that is NOT in the targeted testing area but some of my employees live in the targeted testing area. What should I do?

Under national lockdown restrictions, everyone should be working from home where possible. If your staff live in a targeted testing area and cannot work from home, they can continue to come to work as normal (please see the above guidance ‘Can I go to work?’). All residents living in the targeted testing area are advised to have a symptom-free variant test, and are able to continue work as long as they continue to have no COVID-19 symptoms, or unless their symptom-free variant test result comes back positive, at which time they will be required to self-isolate for 10 days. There is no requirement for people living and working in the target test areas to self-isolate while awaiting results after they have been tested for the COVID-19 variant. 

If your staff, as part of their role,  are required to visit a targeted testing area, they can also continue to go to work in line with the above guidance but should also get tested too (please see the above guidance ‘I don't live in a targeted testing area, but I work there or am in a support bubble with residents of the area ― should I be tested too?’). 

If any member of your staff develops COVID-19 symptoms they must self-isolate and book a standard COVID-19 test through the NHS via the NHS COVID-19 App, online or by calling 119.

For education settings in the targeted testing areas

At this time no further action is required by Walsall schools or early years settings. Any settings who are in targeted testing areas will be contacted on the return for half term on how to access testing for school staff. 

'Drop and collect' test kits will be delivered to you for all school staff as a one-off test. Any school staff who are working from home and have not been in the area do not require testing.

Please continue to test using your usual lateral flow testing processes (your symptom-free test provided by the Department for Education).

Any staff that develop COVID-19 symptoms, (a high temperature, continuous cough, loss or change to smell or taste) no matter how mild, must self-isolate and book a standard COVID-19 test through the NHS, via the NHS COVID-19 App, online or by calling 119. They should not attempt to take a symptom-free test. 

10,000 residents were tested during the first round of symptom-free targeted South African variant testing in Walsall. Why are only 5000 residents being tested in the second area?

The reason for reducing the population size being tested in this area is due to the limit on national testing capacity. Sequencing is now being undertaken on other new and emerging cases of the South African Variant across the country, and therefore the testing sample size is based on the national picture and, specifically, the national laboratory capacity that analyses for the South African variant.

How can I find out more about the local response to the identification of the South African COVID variant in Walsall?

The Local Outbreak Engagement Board met on 4 February 2021 to discuss the COVID variant surge testing in the borough. This public meeting was streamed live and the recording of the meeting can be viewed online. Meeting papers are available on the council's Committee Management and Information System.

When will we know the result of this mass testing exercise at a community level?

People will get their own individual test results after a few days to advise whether they have tested positive or negative for COVID-19. Any positive tests will be sent by national test and trace to laboratories for further analysis / genome testing to identify whether the positive cases from this local area have the South African variant. The council will share results once we are informed of the outcomes through our channels.

What measures will be taken if a large number of cases of South African variant is found?

The government has already taken measures to mitigate the impact of the South African variant, please see the government website for more details.

It is important to recognise that there have only been a small number of cases identified so far in England. Rates in Walsall and across the West Midlands are coming down ― the national lockdown is having an impact but it is important we continue to following lockdown guidance and observe hands, face, space.

When was this variant first identified in Walsall?

It takes a few weeks between a positive test and a random sample being fully sequenced in a lab.  Sequencing means that analysis takes place on the positive virus sample and that is then compared with other positive cases. These infections likely occurred the period after Christmas. Latest data can be found on the GOV.UK website.

Will standard PCR tests identify this variant?

Yes. This is the test where the sample gets sent to a lab for processing. A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests check for the genetic material of the virus in the sample. Find out more on the types and uses of COVID-19 testing

How are you identifying additional cases?

For anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, Public Health England will undertake contact tracing and testing of close contacts of any confirmed cases.
Find out more on NHS Test and Trace and how it works

Was Walsall contacted prior to the announcement of identification of the South African variant in Walsall?

Yes. We have been in regular contact with the National COVID-19 Response Centre, Department Health and Social Care, Public Health England as well as other Directors of Public Health. Nationally they have also communicated operational guidance to testing sites.

Which type of tests will you be using for this?

Initially, we will be asking individuals to take PCR tests. This is the test where the sample gets sent to a lab for processing. A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test checks for the genetic material of the virus in the sample. Find out more on the types and uses of coronavirus (COVID-19) testing.  

FAQs issued by the Department of Health and Social Care

***The below FAQs were issued by central government, and not the council. 

What do we know about South African variant?

  • The variant named B1.351 (also referred to as 501Y.V2) was first detected in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in samples at the beginning of October although molecular dating suggests that it arose at the end of August.
  • There is limited information available on the variant to date, however epidemiological and virological investigations are ongoing in South Africa.
  • The variant first discovered in South Africa, VOC202012/02 in the UK appears to have emerged around the same time as the UK variant and has been seen in a number of other countries including the UK. It shares the same mutation to the N501Y spike protein which makes it more transmissible but also has a number of other mutations including one to the E484K spike protein.
  • Laboratory tests have shown that the E484K mutation may be able to escape the body’s neutralising antibodies and is therefore of potential public health concern, so it’s one we’re monitoring closely. All cases with this mutation are currently being followed-up closely and monitored in the UK.
  • The UK government imposed a ban on direct flights from South Africa and other affected countries, restrictions on flights to the country in order to reduce the spread of the variant in the UK.

What research is being undertaken on the variant first discovered in South Africa?

We are performing three tests at PHE laboratories on the variant: diagnostics, antibody neutralisation/risk of reinfection and impact on vaccine testing. 

How many cases are there nationally?

Please see the latest COVID-19 variants: genomically confirmed case numbers, published by the government and updated on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


Are we acting too late? Will it not be spreading more freely now? 

On 22 December 2020, two cases of the variant first discovered in South Africa, SARS-CoV-2 variant (called VOC202012/02 in the UK, also named B1.351 and 501Y.V2 internationally) were identified in the UK and both had been in contact with someone who has travelled from South Africa. Public Health England’s health protection teams followed up with both cases and contact tracing was undertaken.
On 23 December the government put in travel restrictions from South Africa.
As of Thursday 14 January 2021, 35 genomically confirmed and 12 genomically probable cases of the variant had been identified in the UK.
As of Thursday 27 January 2021, 72 genomically confirmed and 33 genomically probable cases of the variant had been identified in the UK
Laboratory work has begun on the VOC 202012/02 in the UK and is routinely undertaken on all variants under investigation or of concern once samples are available and is ongoing.


Why is the UK not just closing the borders entirely?

Please see the statement from the Home Secretary on the government website in relation to measures being taken at UK borders: Home Office — Tougher border controls to protect public health (27 January 2021).

Surely no one should be coming in from countries where the variant is present?

Please see the statement from the Home Secretary on the government website in relation to measures being taken at UK borders: Home Office — Tougher border controls to protect public health (27 January 2021).

Why didn’t you do this sooner?

On 23 December the government put in travel restrictions from South Africa. All non-essential travel already isn’t allowed — so people shouldn’t be going on holidays — and we already have tough measures in place. As we have done throughout this pandemic we will continue to take all steps necessary to protect the public and help prevent the spread of the virus.


What are you doing to limit the SA variant from getting to the UK?

The Department for Transport have restrictions in place for everyone arriving in the country from South Africa.
People who have been in or transited through the countries listed (please see the link above) will not be granted access to the UK.
This does not include British and Irish Nationals, or third country nationals with residence rights in the UK, who will be able to enter the UK but are required to self-isolate for 10 days on arrival along with their household. Isolation Assurance Service (IAS) is contacting all returnees from southern African countries to reinforce the advice to self-isolate, to encourage testing even if asymptomatic and inform anyone treating/testing them of their recent travel to southern Africa.


Why aren’t we surge testing for the whole country?

We are surge testing where we know we have confirmed cases of the variant. Public Health England are also undertaking contact tracing and will undertake testing of close contacts of confirmed cases.


Why aren’t you scaling up to test for other variants such as the Brazil variant?

To date, we do not have any cases of the variant of concern first identified in Brazil (P1). 
We are focusing on the variant first discovered in South Africa first as we consider how we would scale up to test for other variants once identified.


How long will this last? When will you publish the results?

This targeted testing surge is planned to last for two weeks and will be kept under close review.

FAQs issued by Public Health England

***The below FAQs were issued by central government, and not the council. 


Are these cases in the community or associated with institutional settings?

As part of contact tracing, cases are investigated to determine routes of transmission and whether any links to settings exist.


Are they linked, or believed to be separate spontaneous occurrences?

As part of contact tracing cases, are investigated to determine routes of transmission and whether any links to settings exist.


Are they all B117 lineage with E484K?

The previously reported cluster of cases in Liverpool with the E484K mutation were from Lineage A.


Is there any evidence from laboratory studies or the epidemiology of these clusters that suggests E484K (in combination with N501Y already present in B1117 variant) has led to an increase in transmissibility/immune escape?

The E484K mutation is reported to result in weaker neutralisation by antibodies in laboratory experiments and so may need further investigation to understand more on immune response and how well vaccines work against it. There is currently no evidence that this mutation alone causes a variant to be more transmissible, but it’s something we’re monitoring closely.


What is genomic sequencing? 

Genomic sequencing is the process of testing a sample of the virus in order to map its genetic sequence. This is happening as part of continued surveillance studies to identify any new variants of SARS-CoV-2 the virus that causes COVID-19. 
Through the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, the UK is a global leader in SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) genomics, providing around 48% of the genomic data supplied to GISAID, the scientific initiative which allows global, real-time surveillance of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Why is it important?

Is vital to the global response to the pandemic, allowing us to monitor and understand the evolution of new COVID-19 variants and respond with timely public health interventions.


Should people be worried?

It is right that we should be cautious about new variants, we appreciate that people may be anxious in the current climate. The UK has a world leading genomic sequencing capability. We are constantly on the lookout for any new variants, our ability to identify any early will allow us to deploy public health interventions to keep people safe. 
We are investigating this new variant of SARS-CoV-2 which originated in South Africa. Viruses often evolve and this is not unusual. We are carrying out work as a priority to understand the potential risk this variant may cause. It is important to say that there is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, or that the regulated vaccine would not protect against it.
The best way to stop infection is to stick to the rules – wash our hands, wear a face covering and keep our distance from others.


Is the variant of concern the one that was first identified in South Africa?

We believe that it is, but we are conducting additional testing to properly sequence and identify the scale of any transmission. 


Is this variant more deadly? 

There is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, or that the regulated vaccine would not protect against it.


Does this variant spread more easily?

Similar to the evidence collected from the variant first identified in the UK, there is some evidence that this variant can spread more easily than the ‘original’ version of the virus. 


When do the cases date from? 

The cases developed symptoms from the 18 to 28 December.  It takes time for PCR positive tests to undergo whole genome sequencing, which explains why they have only come to light recently.

Are the clusters linked to one another? 

No. The clusters do not appear to be linked.

Are we sequencing all positive cases that we detect in these areas linked to the community transmission already?

Yes, we are enhancing the sequencing of all cases detected in the area. In addition, we are also testing people without symptoms to find and detect additional cases.

Will sequencing still take two weeks? Or will it be sped up for these areas?

We will be working with the sequencing laboratory to prioritise the analysis of these samples and anticipate it will a quicker turnaround time.