Hospitals gear up for surge in patients as omicron rages across South Africa

“Over the last week, the number of daily infections has increased five-fold. Nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 tests now come back positive. Compare this to two weeks ago, when the proportion of positive tests was sitting at around two per cent,” said Mr Ramaphosa. 

Covid-19 cases are soaring elsewhere in the region, with Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Lesotho and Madagascar all seeing surges in positive cases, most probably linked to omicron. 

Since the  highly mutated variant was first detected in southern Africa last month it has triggered global alarm and led to Western nations like the UK and the US red listing or banning travel from swathes of the continent. 

South Africa’s top scientists — skilled from decades of research into HIV and other infectious diseases — are racing to determine whether omicron is more contagious, can cause more severe illness or is more resistant to existing vaccines.

While experts say that it is still ‘too early’ to tell, there have been competing reports about the severity of the new variant.

Professor Rudo Mathivha, an intensive care specialist at the largest hospital in the country, said that more young people with no co-morbidities were getting severely ill with the disease. 

However, other reports from primary care facilities in South Africa and across the world have suggested that the symptoms of omicron may be mild – particularly for people who have been fully vaccinated. 

A study of 166 patients in hospitals in the Tshwane district of Gauteng province – the epicentre of the omicron outbreak – shows that patients are predominantly younger than those hospitalised in the first and second waves of the disease and they are less likely to need oxygen. The study, published by the South African Medical Research Council, also shows that teh patients were mainly admitted for something other than Covid and the virus was only picked up on routine testing. 

Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African Medical Association president and the first GP to identify the new variant in her patients, urged calm. 

“I am part of a large group of doctors, and we exchange information all the time. Between all of us, only two of our patients have been sent to hospital, one with kidney failure and the other was since discharged,” she told The Telegraph on Monday.

“We are not seeing any who need oxygen or have accelerated pulse rate, and we are into our third week.”

Dr Coetzee said that she suspected many of the patients in hospital with Covid-19 might actually be there for other health issues. 

“So let’s say someone will go to [accident and emergency] with a bladder problem. And everyone at casualty is tested, so that patient may prove Covid-19 positive. They will be admitted as a Covid patient. But actually, that patient is in the hospital because of a bladder problem. The Covid is incidental,” she said. 

“This is not nearly like the Delta variant. Delta was a devil. People died, it took lives, we could see them coming in on average seven to 10 a day and the majority got very, very sick.” 

South Africa has been hit harder by the pandemic than any other African nation. The country of 60m people has recorded some 90,000 Covid-19 deaths since the pandemic began. 

However, the South African Medical Research Council says there have been more than 270,000 excess deaths in the country, almost twice the number recorded in the UK. 

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