40,000 could die in SA when Covid-19 storm peaks: experts

20 May 2020 - 06:39 By STHEMBILE CELE
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Health minister Zweli Mkhize
Health minister Zweli Mkhize
Image: Trevor Samson

SA is likely to face a crisis due to a shortage of ICU beds when the Covid-19 storm lands wreaking havoc and claiming at least 40,000 lives.

A consortium of experts who have been providing the health department with scenarios that could unfold in the coming months made this revelation during a webinar with the media and health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize on Tuesday evening.

The experts say that the country is likely to see 30,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 — the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus — by the end of May, and an estimated 475 people will have lost the fight to the virus in the same period.

Currently the country has 17,200 confirmed cases, with the death toll standing at 312.

It is estimated that by the end of November, 40,000 people will have died and there would be hundreds of thousands of infections.

Dr Sheetal Silal, an expert in statistical sciences from the University of Cape Town, was at pains to emphasise that the models painted a number of scenarios which looked at the best and worst possible outcomes.

The nine different provinces were expected to peak at different levels and different times. What was consistent across the country, however, was the alarming prediction that ICU beds would be at full capacity even before the peak.

Basic education minister Angie Motshekga announced that grade 7 and 12 pupils will return to classrooms on June 1 2020 while teachers will return to schools on May 25. Motshekga assured the public that the government would be implementing safety measures to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus in reopened schools.

Both Mkhize and the team of experts stressed that the figures were not set in stone and were subject to new and more credible data becoming available, along with SA's response to containment measures.

“The one issue that we all agree on is that, up until recently, the figures from models were a bit less reliable. The term is 'uncertainty'. That uncertainty means that we must be aware that there is an issue but the exact date, the exact numbers and so on, will become clearer as you get more information fed into the system. We will be able to deal with that. However at this point, we have been working on these numbers,” Mkhize said.

Even as most of the country prepares to head to level 3 of government's alert levels at the end of this month, the department of health can only hope that it will have done enough to drill into South Africans the need to practise the non-pharmaceutical interventions of social distancing, heightened hygiene and mask wearing, in the absence of treatment for the virus.

Mkhize also appeared to downplay the grim picture painted by the experts in relation to the availability of ICU beds.

“The total number of beds both in public and private sector comes to a total of 125,390. That is generally non-ICU beds, and then there are 4,000 beds which are ICU beds and with the time we have added, there have been another 6,500 beds that have been put up.

“There are also plans for adding additional ICU beds for example out in Nasrec [Johannesburg]. There are plans to put up ICU beds there. I think we must just note the fact that there will be this issue of the ICU bed shortfall,” he said.

He said that government would continue to work to build bed capacity according to the needs of the different areas.

“Based on the current plans that we are working on and also the focus in terms of the additional resources that there should be additional procurement that will actually help to improve the numbers at that point. That means that as we move along we will be dealing with that. In some of the provinces and some of the districts we have taken a view that says we need to look at the peak time as we look at the numbers increase, we are going to have to keep increasing the number of beds as it were,” said Mkhize.

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