Covid-19: Lack of testing means EC rate 'worse than we know'

31 May 2020 - 00:00 By MPUMZI ZUZILE
Health workers fill out documents before performing tests for Covid-19 at the screening and testing tents set up at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg.
Health workers fill out documents before performing tests for Covid-19 at the screening and testing tents set up at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg.
Image: Michele Spatari / AFP

The Eastern Cape must brace for a dramatic increase in Covid-19 hospitalisations because the officially reported figures are only the tip of the iceberg, a health expert warned this week.

Official statistics give the number of known cases in the Eastern Cape as more than 3,580, with 80 deaths, the second-highest death toll in SA.

But professor Lungile Pepeta, head of the health faculty at Nelson Mandela University, said: "We must brace ourselves for a rapid rise in hospitalisations. The disease has spread far beyond the reported figures. We must prepare hospital beds.

"We should protect the elderly and vulnerable. Let's not wait for the test results. Isolate and self-quarantine whether you've tested or have received results or not. Every flu must be treated as Covid-19 until proven otherwise."

Pepeta said testing had become a luxury. "The system can't keep up with the rate of spread of the disease."

Dr John Black, who is leading the coronavirus response at Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth, said the government should focus on getting communities on board in implementing health precautions as the lockdown is eased.

"The system is only as good as community participation and is at the mercy of community behaviour. This was always going to be difficult if a large group of people were not going to buy into things," said Black.

Speaking at a health department briefing on Friday night, professor Salim Abdool Karim, chair of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, said SA's infection rate had been doubling almost every two days before the lockdown but had since slowed dramatically.

Abdool Karim said testing had increased sharply but a shortage of equipment meant it had to be restricted to hospital patients, health-care workers and Covid-19 hotspots.

Eastern Cape health spokesperson Judy Mpetsheni said the province was intensifying its awareness campaign on social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks.

It had employed an additional 829 nurses and nursing assistants and was contracting 1,000 more. She said the department was increasing the number of community health workers from 4,600 to 10,000.

At the health department briefing on Friday, National Health Laboratory Service CEO Dr Kamy Chetty said the backlog of suspected Covid-19 specimens at the agency rose past 83,760 this week because of an international shortage of extraction kits. Of those specimens, about 22,000 are from the Eastern Cape, 24,000 from Gauteng, and 22,000 from KwaZulu-Natal.

Mpetsheni said the provincial health department is now contracting private laboratories to help with the backlog.

"The private labs have similar challenges even though their supply is better as they service a smaller community," she said.


Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.