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Gauteng stumbling in the dark on Covid stats

Gauteng mix-up undermines efforts to combat second wave

20 December 2020 - 00:00 By belinda pheto
Gauteng health authorities raised eyebrows last month when they reported the province's number of active cases was lower than the number of Covid patients in hospitals.
Gauteng health authorities raised eyebrows last month when they reported the province's number of active cases was lower than the number of Covid patients in hospitals.
Image: GALLO IMAGES/DINO LLOYD

Health experts agree that unless Gauteng sorts out the reporting of its Covid-19 numbers, it will be difficult to plan a response to the pandemic.

Last month the province had to be excluded from the national statistics because health authorities needed to reconcile their data, health minister Zweli Mkhize said at the time.

But just over a week ago, provincial health spokesperson Kwara Kekana told the Sunday Times she had taken a look at the numbers and they did not appear to have been reconciled.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) this week also retracted a statement by one of its members to the effect that the second wave of infections had now hit Gauteng.

"During the press briefing at the online launch of the SACMC [South African Covid-19 Modelling Consortium] epidemic explorer [dashboard], a member misspoke, suggesting Gauteng had entered a second wave," said NICD spokesperson Sinenhlanhla Jimoh.

Covid-19 in Gauteng.
Covid-19 in Gauteng.
Image: Graphic by Nolo Moima

"This was an error. Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal meet the definition of a second wave, while Gauteng is experiencing a period of sustained increase as indicated by the plots."

Gauteng health authorities raised eyebrows last month when they reported the province's number of active cases was lower than the number of Covid patients in hospitals.

Professor Thumbi Ndung'u, deputy director of the African Health Research Institute, said it would be difficult to determine how the discrepancy in Gauteng's figures arose.

"It could be as a result of a delay in updating records. The transmission of results from one testing centre could be the issue. It could simply be a logistical challenge," he said.

Both the provincial and national health departments remain mum about what caused the problem.

Ndung'u said the inaccurate numbers could hamper the province's response to the pandemic.

"It can affect planning and readiness in terms of understanding the pandemic and how it is progressing. If it's a once-off thing it wouldn't be much of a challenge if corrected quickly," he said.

Professor Thumbi Ndung'u
Professor Thumbi Ndung'u
Image: Supplied

Professor Wolfgang Preiser, head of virology at Stellenbosch University, called the mix-up "concerning".

"Figures are vitally important to assess epidemic spread over areas and over time," he said.

The process might be imperfect - "for example undercounting if possible cases aren't even tested, like now again in the Western Cape due to lab overload" - but statistics were needed on the number of people tested, how many were positive, how many were admitted to hospital and so on, so that hotspots could be identified, among other things.

Gauteng released its latest figures on Thursday. They show that as at December 16, the province had 11,369 active Covid-19 cases, with 1,534 people in hospital, compared with 5,021 Covid hospital admissions in July, when SA recorded its first peak of infections.

Kekana said the province had developed plans in preparation for a possible second wave, including better contact tracing.

"We will focus mainly on the trajectory of cases within the districts and identified hotspots as they relate to Gauteng."

Kekana said the provincial health department had conducted an aggressive recruitment process during the first phase of the pandemic to ensure it would have enough staff.

The department would continue to assess the second wave and would do all it could to address potential staffing gaps.

Infectious diseases expert professor Ian Sanne, CEO of the Right to Care NGO, said the public took the virus more seriously in cities that published regular updates of patient numbers in hospitals and bed availability.

"The visibility of beds status on a daily basis would provide additional impetus to keep the general population engaged in social distancing, mask wearing and using sanitiser to prevent Covid," Sanne said.

Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, said the increase in infections was worrying.

"Anything above 5,000 new infections is worrying and unacceptable. We are now seeing double that figure."

She said she did not believe the statistics from public institutions were a true reflection of Covid-19 infections, at provincial or national level.


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