'There was this relaxed attitude': MAC advisers say government did not listen to third wave warning

'Some patients will expire before we even find a bed for them. That is how bad things are. This is the reality of the situation,' Prof Rudo Mathivha, director of critical care medicine at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, told eNCA.

24 June 2021 - 06:49
Two health experts have slammed government's failure to act swiftly in the face of the third Covid-19 wave, taking particular aim at a lack of hospital space and quarantine facilities not being reopened.
Two health experts have slammed government's failure to act swiftly in the face of the third Covid-19 wave, taking particular aim at a lack of hospital space and quarantine facilities not being reopened.
Image: Cebisile Mbonani

The government was repeatedly warned about the impending third Covid-19 wave and was told to set up field hospitals over fears that health facilities would quickly become overwhelmed — but they simply didn’t listen.

This is the shocking revelation by two health experts, speaking to eNCA on Wednesday night.

Prof Rudo Mathivha, director of critical care medicine at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, and Prof Kholeka Mlisana, co-chair of the ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on Covid-19, were scathing of health authorities’ failure to listen to the warnings. As a result, they said, hospitals were full and people were dying.

“This third wave was coming. Covid never bid us goodbye after the second wave. And we cautioned when centres [field hospitals] like Nasrec were closed, when the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital went down more than 60 days ago, we knew we were facing a crisis and our Covid numbers were already starting to climb. And there was just a relaxed attitude on our provincial health department's part in not planning,” said Mathivha, who also sits on the advisory committee.

There was just a relaxed attitude on our provincial health department's part in not planning
Prof Rudo Mathivha

Mlisana was equally critical, saying that there was a full-blown crisis in Gauteng.

On Wednesday night, Gauteng recorded more than 10,800 new Covid-19 cases in the 24 hours prior, the highest that the province has ever recorded in a single day.

But even before these shocking figures, she said that authorities “saw these numbers coming up”.

She said that, as the MAC, it was imperative that health facilities were prepared and ready for the coming wave — a responsibility of the provincial health department. But, said Mlisana, that didn’t happen.

“As the advisory committee, we said we have actually had some of these field hospitals before. Let's get those ready. And the question that we need to pose is, when is that going to happen? When are we going to see extra beds for Gauteng? And, really, that is causing a lot of anxiety to us as a committee, and we do need to actually get that done. And it should have been done last week.

“From the reports that we are getting is that, you know, the department has failed ... We are looking at more than 100% bed occupancy in some hospitals. And the question is, what is going to happen to patients when they need to go to hospital? Where are the beds, where is the staffing to actually look after these patients?

“We really just feel when there was time to prepare, we're not seeing that preparedness coming through, because there actually were even surge plans put in place, and now we're not seeing those coming up,” she said.

She added that government had been talking to the health minister and health authorities about the impact of the Charlotte Maxeke hospital fire, particularly as cases surged, “but here we are today and we’re still talking about the same thing”.

“At the same time, what I always say is that this should have been done two weeks ago or even earlier, but this has not happened,” she said.

This failure has had devastating consequences.

Speaking about the situation at Chris Hani Baragwanath, Mathivha painted a horrific picture.

“People wait in queues. We cannot turn people away, but they will wait in queues. Some of them will wait in casualty for up to two to three days, maybe on oxygen, lying on a stretcher, until we find a bed for them. Some patients will expire before we even find a bed for them. That is how bad things are. This is the reality of the situation, and I'm not going to give you a feel-good message because that is not what is happening in the public hospitals.

“With the current overcrowding, we are no longer able to convert existing beds into Covid beds when we face increasing numbers of Covid positive patients. This is the reality that the public needs to know. And we are not telling them the truth.

“We are unable to decant our hospitals because we're still carrying a lot of extra patients that do not have Covid from the fallout of the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital closing, because we still need to provide those healthcare services that that hospital used to provide. And these are seriously ill patients, oncology patients, cardiac patients, very serious surgical patients, that we need to take care of. We are carrying a trauma epidemic burden that we have to attend to. We cannot turn those patients away,” she said.

She also slammed the government’s much-vaunted involvement of the military to help.

“You talk about the military being deployed in Gauteng. It's a joke. Five doctors and 44 nurses. What are they going to do? As we speak, those soldiers won’t even come and work at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital until they are offered accommodation at the hospital. We don't have that luxury. They also want to be vaccinated first before they’ll come and work.

“What do five doctors do? We are already like 16 medical officers short ... Our staff is getting sick from Covid, from stress-related diseases, because they're also tired, they're morally injured. We are exhausted. We need to protect each other, SA,” she said.

Mathivha was also critical of the decision to close quarantine facilities that operated during the initial parts of the lockdown, saying that this would have helped in preventing those who had been infected but could not isolate from spreading the virus further.

“Those people just need maybe food and a bed to sleep in. You quarantine them. Now you’ve gone and closed the Nasrec quarantine facility for no good reason. We told you not to close it, but you closed it,” she said.

Gauteng premier David Makhura was expected to give an update on the Covid-19 situation in Gauteng on Thursday, with the national coronavirus command council set to meet next Tuesday.

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