File Picture: AP Photo/Patrick Ngugi
File Picture: AP Photo/Patrick Ngugi

Coronavirus: Caution and anxiety warranted but hysteria is not, experts say

By ANA Reporter Time of article published Mar 9, 2020

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Durban – South Africa’s third official Covid-19 patient has been confirmed on Sunday, but those who have thus far tested positive remain in a small, isolated group, the health ministry, doctors, and other healthcare professionals continue to reiterate in an effort to stem a rising tide of panic.

Professor Cheryl Cohen, head of the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases’ (NICD's) centre for respiratory diseases and meningitis, told African News Agency (ANA) members of the public had “concerns and anxiety” that had to be acknowledged, but that factual information was key to avoid panic.

“Given the nature of this event, I think we have to acknowledge that people have anxiety and they have valid concerns. We need to make sure that people have the proper information so that they can understand the risk and feel that they can protect themselves,” Cohen said.

Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has said the same thing, stating that “demystifying” the virus was important to curb “fake news” and often sensational reporting.

Mkhize is the only government official authorised to announce cases of the disease, once they have been confirmed via laboratory testing, another effort to stem unnecessary panic.

The first person to be officially diagnosed with the virus last week was a 38-year-old businessman from Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal. His wife was the third positive diagnosis, announced on Sunday.

The second person who tested positive was a woman from Gauteng, who was part of a group that holidayed in Italy – a known Coronavirus hotspot – that included the husband and his wife from KwaZulu-Natal.

“It is important to advise the public that the [Hilton] couple’s children were tested and their results have come out negative. However, as part of taking extra precautions, these children will remain in self-quarantine until their parents have tested negative,” the NICD said on Sunday.

The institute also said that the remaining individuals who had undertaken the Italian holiday had all been traced, although one had not returned to South Africa. The test results for the remainder of the group were expected within the next 48 hours, the NICD said.

The Hilton businessman is currently in isolation in Grey’s Hospital, Pietermaritzburg, and has stated publicly that he is well on his way to recovery. The doctor who tested him at her Hilton-based practice, Dr Robyn Reed, said on Monday that she and her staff at the practice had all tested negative for the virus.

The NICD last week sent its contact tracing teams to KwaZulu-Natal to track those who may have been in contact with the infected couple. The same is being done in Gauteng.

Cohen told ANA that the NICD expert heading up the tracing team in KwaZulu-Natal had received “on the ground training” in the Congo, working on contact tracing during the Ebola virus outbreak. “That training has been invaluable” to the present situation in South Africa, she said.

Greys is one of KZN’s designated Covid-19 treatment facilities, the others being Manguzi Hospital in the far north, near the Mozambican border, Ngwelezane Hospital outside Empangeni and Addington Hospital, on the Durban beachfront.

While at first tracing and control of the virus had been handled at a national level, provincial healthcare departments around the country have now been directed to activate their outbreak response teams, Mkhize said.

“[The teams] are on high alert to detect and manage inadvertent cases that may arrive in the country,” Mkhize said.

He has repeatedly reiterated that the country’s healthcare facilities are “geared to handle” the virus, but South Africans remain sceptical in the wake of numerous scandals at public hospitals, including avoidable deaths.

According to national health protocol, if someone suspects they are infected, they are to visit a healthcare practitioner such as a GP or clinic. A test will be performed at that facility if the patient is displaying symptoms or has returned to the country from a country with infections.

The patient is then told to go home and self-isolate until the results are returned. Should the results be positive, the patient will be transported to one of the designated hospitals, depending on his or her location.

But nurses at two of the dedicated hospitals have told ANA that they do not believe they have had adequate training to handle the positive cases that may be referred to their facilities.

“I just won’t do it,” numerous nurses responded when asked how they would react if allocated Covid-19 cases.

The nurses spoke to ANA on condition that their names not be used as they feared reprisal.

Asked why their reaction was so extreme, considering the virus has a low mortality rate and is a new flu strain, they said they did not have enough information on the disease and had “watched on TV people dying everywhere”.

This, however, is not accurate. Covid-19 thus far has a low mortality rate globally.

In places such as Italy, the mortality rate is higher. But that country has the second oldest population in the world and the elderly are more susceptible to respiratory diseases such as Coronavirus, particularly those who have other conditions that may compromise their immune systems. 

The virus is spread through droplets from sneezing or coughing, and although the World Health Organisation (WHO) is still investigating how long the virus can survive on surfaces, it has cautioned that longevity could be anything from a few hours to several days. 

But the organisation also says this may depend on the weather and what material the surface is made of.

This is why social distancing (standing at least a metre away from someone) has been encouraged, as have frequent hand washing and not touching your face.

Soap and water are good enough to wash the virus from your hands should you have touched an infected surface, which means the likelihood of the virus being transferred to your eyes, nose or mouth is limited, the WHO says.

But in an era of fake news and far too many wanton idiots willing to spread lies and misinformation, those who are prone to panic are sure to panic.

On Monday, KwaZulu-Natal’s health MEC, Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu, lashed out at a purposely created voice note speaking of panic at the province’s Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital, based in Umlazi.

The woman in the voice note said there were a number of patients at the hospital who were infected with the virus.

Simelane-Zulu said the voice note had been traced to an employee of the state-owned National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), and that the woman would be facing disciplinary action by hospital management and the laboratory service.

“While the production and dissemination of fake news is a global problem, it is unbecoming of state employees to involve themselves in such malicious conduct. They really should know better,” Simelane-Zulu said.

The NICD’s toll free coronavirus hotline can be contacted on 0800 029 999. 

African News Agency (ANA)

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