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The real risk of experiencing a “second wave” of coronavirus cases remains, so containment measures must never be abandoned, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Wednesday.

Mkhize held an early-morning virtual briefing to update South Africans on the current state of affairs regarding the health department’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are not out of the woods yet. Until we are completely safe, we will keep reviewing restrictions and, if necessary, certain restrictions will still remain in place,” Mkhize said.

Mkhize said South Africa had gone beyond the half-a-million mark of confirmed Covid-19 cases. On Tuesday, night, he announced a cumulative total of 521 318 infections.

“We are happy that even with the targeted testing approach which we adopted as a department based on the Ministerial Advisory Committee [MAC] advice, our testing numbers continue to grow. To date we have tested 3 078 202. This translates to a testing rate of 51 514 per million [of the] population, which compares well to global figures,” the minister said.

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Home deaths to be tested for Covid-19

“The question that has been raised is whether the plateau that is observed in some provinces is due to reduced testing numbers or if indeed fewer people are becoming infected with coronavirus. To assess this, we have looked at other key indicators which are that we have seen reduced hospital admissions and persons under investigation (PUIs) presenting in health facilities; we have not breached hospital capacity; and, despite the surge, we have not seen a significant increase in deaths.”

Mkhize said while the department was “cautiously optimistic”, it was still too early to make definite conclusions regarding the observed decline.

“We need to continue to track all these indicators and ensure that our testing capacity reflects a realistic picture of our epidemiological status. We will therefore only know for sure when there is a consistent decline over a period.

“It is worth mentioning that, as part of improving the records of Covid-19-related deaths in response to reports on excess deaths, we now require that all the sudden deaths and those that occur at home must have specimens taken for Covid-19 before a death certificate is issued,” Mkhize said.


Bed and oxygen capacity

“We continuously assess the availability of beds, oxygen and staff complement. While there have been constraints, work has been done to ensure vacancies are filled, but we can also confirm that we have not breached our bed capacity and many of our field hospitals are not filled to capacity and we continue to monitor this as we manage the surge.

“We have no doubt experienced challenges and glitches. This is in no way unique to our country. I therefore want to submit, with all humility, that up to now our government has displayed its readiness and has thus far coped with the surge. We remain committed to taking all the measures necessary to protect our people,” Mkhize said.

“It appears we may have benefitted from treatment developments as we were experiencing our surge. Our indications are that there has already been an improvement in the survival rate from ICU [intensive care unit], where the mortality has been reduced demonstrably: one study shows ICU mortality has been reduced by about 25% since the introduction of dexamethasone on 16 June 16.

“In another study undertaken by MRC [South African Medical Research Council], ICU survival rates showed dramatic improvement at 30% to 40%, whereas the ICU mortality rate at the beginning of the pandemic was around 80%.”

Notwithstanding these encouraging scenarios, the department has directed all provinces to enter into service level agreements with private health facilities to ensure that when bed shortages are experienced, alternatives can be explored.

Update on vaccines

Mkhize said while it was still “early days”, the department had undertaken to invest in the development of a vaccine against the novel coronavirus.”Currently we are participating in the ChAdOx-1 study and in the COVAX project to be part of the global research initiatives as well as the access to vaccines programme. We also wish to pursue the possibility of manufacturing vaccines locally.”

WHO team arriving in South Africa

Mkhize announced that the WHO had agreed to government’s request for reinforcements.

“As we know, South Africa is now in the top five globally in terms of the number of infections. I want to pause and acknowledge the WHO director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, for his continuous support and counsel. We know that he and his team have had to carry the global burden in the battle against Covid-19.

“Today we announce that the WHO will be sending 43 senior experts from across the globe, including renowned specialists such as Dr David Heymann, who is a seasoned infectious disease epidemiologist and public health expert. I’m also pleased that Dr Mike Ryan will be leading a team from Geneva and will now be focusing on South Africa and providing us with constant advice while analysing our strategies, including the decisions we have taken as the Department of Health in our Covid-19 response.”

Mkhize said this was a great opportunity, not only to improve South Africa’s health strategies during the pandemic, but also to accelerate its path toward healthcare reform.

The first 17 experts will touch down in South African on Wednesday and will complete a period of quarantine and initiation before being deployed within the department and across various provinces.

Don’t become complacent

“We can never overemphasise the importance of good human behaviour and the impact it can have on flattening the curve,” Mkhize warned. “The containment measures being implemented are assisting; however, we must not be complacent. The real risk of experiencing the ‘second wave’ of the pandemic remains, so containment measures must never be abandoned.

“Until we are completely safe, we will keep reviewing restrictions and, if necessary, certain restrictions will still remain in place.”

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.