No immediate restrictions or bans after first coronavirus case in SA

05 March 2020 - 16:53
By Andisiwe Makinana

The government is not enforcing any immediate restrictions or bans in the wake of the first case of coronavirus being detected in SA.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize confirmed on Thursday that the 38-year-old man who tested positive for Covid-19 is a SA citizen from KwaZulu-Natal.

SA is now on high alert with regards to detecting and quelling the spread of the virus.

While the epidemic has not, at least yet, spread at the same intensity as in countries such as Italy, health minister Zweli Mkhize said on Thursday that heightening alertness in dealing with people coming from other countries would be a major issue going forward.

Mkhize was addressing journalists in parliament on Thursday just hours after his department confirmed SA's first case of the epidemic.

“We are not at that level where we should be talking about closing down schools and so on, we are at a point where we are taking precautions.

“The major issue for now is to heighten our alertness as we deal with those that could be coming from different parts of the world and also ensuring that we detect if there are any cases that are spreading within the country, as we have seen in the US people testing positive with the virus while they have not been out of the US and had not been in contact with anyone who had been out of the country.”

Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize gave an update on the spread of coronavirus to South Africa on Thursday, March 5 2020.
Image: Anthony Molyneaux Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize gave an update on the spread of coronavirus to South Africa on Thursday, March 5 2020.

Mkhize called on the public to co-operate with the government's efforts to reduce the spread of infection.

While remaining on high alert, Mkhize said the government will not be putting any restrictions or bans in place but would be increasing vigilance in specific areas, including on a number of countries where the level of transmission was higher, so that people were encouraged to self-disclose.

The minister will also hold talks with sporting bodies, church organisations, international conference organisers and the hospitality industry about their travel as a precautionary measure and to increase awareness on the situation.

“It is going to be obviously a consultative process. We need to make sure we know how to deal with the next few months because we think the approach and the presentation of the coronavirus is changing.

“We just want to bring the awareness that there might be a situation developing in the country and therefore we need to work together and get their advice and if they have got any specific suggestions, we need to share information with them about where do they see the risks and what suggestions do they have.

“We will not be taking decisions for them and at the moment we don't have any reason to enforce anything on the churches and sports bodies. We just need the leaders and organisers to be aware so that they can take the right decisions,” he said.

Questions were raised about how the patient travelled through OR Tambo International Airport and then boarded a connecting flight to KwaZulu-Natal without being detected.

Mkhize said they were not worried that someone was found positive after having gone through their systems without being detected. He explained that the man displayed no symptoms when he came through SA borders. They only developed after three days.

“The individual landed on the 1st [March] without any symptoms and therefore whatever screening, whether you examined the person and whether you took their bloods, we don't believe you would have found anything if they didn't exhibit any symptoms as it were.

“The chances are the individual may not have been as infected at the time. We make that as an assumption based on the scientific experience up to now, but we will take the precaution to test all the others,” he said.

He explained that the point of incubation was exactly that. “It says there is time where you might have the virus that is not showing symptoms but there might be times that the same virus having not shown symptoms may actually create ill-health in you and therefore that can be detected.”

Officials are now in a race to locate people the patient came into contact with for testing and. possibly, treatment. “It's not difficult to find out who were those people and our teams are actually working on that right now. They will be mapping the sitting arrangements in the aircraft and will start to look who were the people who were in there and they will do the tracing. They are fairly well-trained on this and they will do it in terms of international standards,” said the minister.

He said the lessons learnt from China were moving with speed, decisiveness, unity of everyone and acting in unison in dealing with the spread of the virus.

Prof Cheryl Cohen of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NCID) said in increasing sensitivity and ability to detect the virus, they have recently expanded their case definition of who should be tested to include testing of any person with pneumonia of unexplained etiology even if they haven't travelled. This would detect cases in the event the virus is circulating in a community.

Cohen said they were also planning to start testing for the virus on the routine surveillance programme, platforms that normally track what's going on with respiratory disease in communities.

• This article was updated at 8:50pm.