BLOG: “It didn’t have to be this way”

With a feeling of déjà vu, Covid is topping the news agenda once again during this festive season.

Liverpool City Council Video Journalist Jenifer Bruce was given unique access to a Covid Intensive Care Ward at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital to capture the reality of what is currently happening.

And that reality is young, unvaccinated people are fighting for their lives.

In her blog, Jennifer shares her experience and urges people to get vaccinated to protect themselves and the ones they love.

Whenever I’m working on a big story, one of the first things I do is buy a jar of crunchy peanut butter. It’s not something I usually have in my kitchen cupboard otherwise.

The purchase acknowledges there won’t be much time for cooking. All my decision-making skills will instead be focussed on solving the puzzle of the story. While I’m gathering pieces of the puzzle, peanut butter caters for of all my nutritional needs. Plus, I only have to choose from three options: bread, crackers or a spoon. I’ve had a jar of peanut butter in my cupboard since the 14th November.

Liverpool has been through a lot lately

A terror attack, Ava White’s murder, hosting the G7 meeting of foreign leaders and now the Omicron variant, which means Covid numbers are rising again – rapidly. We all know what that means.

If you had told me a year ago that I’d need to go back to the ICU at the Royal Liverpool University hospital, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet a couple of days ago I placed the heavy-duty mask, with the red straps over my nose and mouth, and did the now familiar breathing test to make sure it was secure.

I think this time last year most of us believed this would be over by now, or at least winding down. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The vaccine has meant that we can return to a version of normalcy, but that is a bit of a false economy.

Liverpool has the 5th lowest vaccine uptake of the eight English Core Cities.

Add the Omicron variant into that mix and things suddenly get a lot worse. I returned to the ICU to show you that this isn’t over. This is not the time to let our guard down. We need to do everything we can to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our city. To do that you need to have all the information, you need to see what’s going on, and be aware of the worst case scenario.

Yet reality would hit home from another city.

The night before my visit to the ICU I received a message from Fran, my sister, who lives in south London.  Leo, my usually robust four year old nephew, was having breathing difficulties:

“…the GP has called an ambulance, they think it’s Covid.” my sister wrote.

For a split second I imagine the worst and I’m scared. I’m scared we’re going to lose him, I’m scared for my sister who is dealing with this alone, because families can’t be together to support each other at the hospital.

David, Leo’s dad, rings me and I have to get it together. I hear the fear in his voice, and I’m sure he could hear it in mine. We tell each other, this is going to be ok I feel like we’re both pretending.

None of this is ok.

The updates from the hospital in London trickle in over the next few hours. Leo is on oxygen and not responding to the medication, so they’ve put him on steroids. The paediatric unit is full, up 50% on its usual occupancy at this time of year. Every child battling a respiratory illness.

I’m very aware that what’s happening in London is usually mirrored in Liverpool a few weeks later. My sister calls, I ask her how she’s doing and she says: ‘this is terrifying.’ I hear Leo coughing in the background ‘Got to go. She hangs up. There is some relief in knowing that both Fran and David have had their vaccines, and Fran had just received her booster the week before. And I’m acutely aware that what’s playing out in my universe is happening all over the country.

 I eventually get some sleep. I have to.  I need to be firing on all cylinders the next day.     

The atmosphere at the Royal’s ICU is different from last year. It’s calmer. Things feel more ordinary – instead of extraordinary – like the first time we experienced a Covid surge last Christmas. This year, we have the vaccine.  

Yet things are anything but ordinary.

As I interview a few of the doctors and nurses I am disturbed by the ages of the patients on the Covid ICU ward: the youngest is 30. Unvaccinated, with no underlying health conditions. This was repeated across all the interviews, with the oldest patient just 40 years old.

There’s a sadness amongst the ICU staff – and a sense of frustration.  I ask them about it and all of them, once again, say the same thing: – it didn’t necessarily have to be this way for these patients. 

Some of them might not make it – a few of them haven’t

A few hours later I’m outside the hospital. It’s only been a few hours, but I’m drained. The bridge of my nose hurts from the mask – I forgot about that.

I check my messages to see if there are any updates from London.  Leo doesn’t have Covid – instant relief. However, he has a bilateral chest infection and two viruses: Flu A and RSV which, according to his doctors, mimics Covid.

Lockdown caused usual flu viruses to mutate aggressively

Leo’s doctors explained last year’s lockdown did its job: it protected us from Covid. Yet the lockdown also caused the usual flu viruses to mutate aggressively – hence the uptick in paediatric admissions. As my sister Fran said to me, “All I know is I had my booster on Wednesday and I’m the only one still standing at home”. David fell ill the day of his booster appointment.

I am relieved beyond words as I settle down at home to begin working on the story. I review my footage. The patients battling Covid in our ICUs – all of them unvaccinated. Their doctors, nurses doing everything they can to keep them going. That chilling sense of ordinariness mingling with frustrated fatigue of medical teams.

I grab my jar of peanut butter and a spoon, and get to work putting the pieces I’ve gathered together. It’s not a puzzle anymore, it’s a clear picture. The numbers have it. Get vaccinated. 

Jennifer Bruce

Video Journalist

Liverpool City Council

Liverpool Waterfront