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In the absence of a new Covid-19 variant, South Africans can expect the peak of a possible third wave of infections to be lower than what was seen during the second wave.

Although the timing of the third wave remains uncertain, the health department predicts that hospital admissions will be less for all age groups.

According to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, the department plans to vaccinate as many citizens as possible before the expected third wave hits.

During a briefing to Parliament’s health committee on Wednesday, Mkhize told MPs that officials specifically monitored infections in three provinces – the Northern Cape, the North West and the Free State.

He added: “These provinces are showing numbers that are increasing. These numbers are, however, very low, taking into account the total population of the country. We are working on them very closely and trying to reduce the numbers and further spread in particular areas. It’s also important, the work on the modelling for the third wave is being done. Everything about it remains uncertain. When it will arise and how bad it will be, although there are indications that it won’t be worse than the second wave of infections. We want to, however, vaccinate as many people as possible and without being troubled about the next wave.”

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The health department’s director-general, Sandile Buthelezi, also said that the size of the third wave depended on the rate at which contacts increased.

“Slow, weak response is not an upper bound on fatigue. More extreme scenarios are possible, but it would be unreasonable for fatigue to be so extreme that the population would not adopt any protective measures. Fast, strong response is not a lower bound on fatigue either. This scenario is comparable to the estimated response in the second wave; it would be unreasonable to assume less fatigue in the third wave,” he said.

Buthelezi also said that behaviour change factors that could increase the possibility of a third wave, including reduced adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as mask-wearing.

He said the easing of restrictions, holiday travel and super-spreader events would also add to the possibility of a third wave.

“Monitoring trends in cases is the best estimator of when a third wave is likely to begin. Guidelines to using the Epidemic Explorer will be shared with the provinces. The emergence of a highly transmissible new variant may result in a third wave of the same size or worse if it is more severe or provides an opportunity for immune escape. Testing and lineage classification is ongoing,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Health Ministry decided to halt the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine rollout after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a similar decision.

The FDA reported that six women developed blood clots after using the vaccine. More than six million US residents have been injected with the vaccine.

Buthelezi said delaying the start of the third wave meant there was more time for vaccinations.

Next week, South Africa is expected to receive vaccine doses from Pfizer and another batch from J&J.

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