Gauteng health department ‘caught with pants down’ over Covid-19 readiness
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By: Roland Mpofu and Karabo Ngoepe
Johannesburg - As the Covid-19 infection numbers continue to skyrocket throughout the world and country, the Gauteng government has allegedly been found wanting and forced to play catchup.
This is according to the DA's shadow MEC for health in the province, Jack Bloom, who this week said Gauteng was behind schedule in terms of completing hundreds of promised beds.
Bloom said the province's poor planning was exposed by the second wave. He said the much-needed beds to cope with the wave were put in less populated areas instead of where the need is highest.
“Why build extra beds at Jubilee Hospital (in Hammanskraal) when extra capacity is desperately needed at the Steve Biko Hospital and other inner-city hospitals?" Bloom asked.
“Gauteng should have been more prepared for the resurgence of the virus, but many of the new hospital beds that were supposed to have been completed in September last year are still not ready.”
According to Bloom, only 975 critical care beds out of 1 575 planned at five hospitals will be completed at the end of this month, and there are still severe staff shortages.
“Only 95 out of 300 new beds at Jubilee Hospital in the far north of Gauteng are being used, and 300 beds promised at Kopanong Hospital in the south of Gauteng are nowhere near ready. R500 million has been squandered refurbishing the AngloGold Ashanti Hospital on the far West Rand but only 56 out of 175 beds have been finished and there is no staff to operate them. The SIU is investigating this project for suspected corruption.”
His comments came as hospitals in the province are struggling to cope with large numbers of Covid-19 patients. Some of the hospitals have had to convert their parking lots into makeshift wards.
Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Tshwane is one of those. This week, social media was flooded with images from the facility of patients in a tent. Staff have described the situation as "a grim nightmare" with workers overwhelmed.
The Gauteng health MEC's spokesperson, Kwara Kekana, downplayed the issue of bed capacity and said the problem was rather shortages of staff and fatigue. “The system is under strain. We are seeing an increase in the number of people hospitalised, and we have an adequate supply of PPE and oxygen at this stage. Staff is one of the challenges, especially with some staff members getting infected with the virus and also general fatigue,” said Kekana.
She added that only a few hospitals across the province had utilised their parking lots to cater for the extra beds which might be required during the peak of the pandemic.
“Tents were set up last year in preparation for the first wave, these fever tents serve as triage areas,” said Kekana.
Life Eugene Marais Hospital set up a 10-bed holding area in the undercover parking lot to cope with the increasing number of people waiting to be admitted or transferred.
Netcare spokesperson Dr Richard Friedland said the group was constantly converting more beds to red Covid-19 beds to accommodate the expected surge in Gauteng.
“To ease the burden of our emergency departments, and to alleviate long waiting times, we are establishing Clinical Decision Units within certain hospitals. These will be managed by our emergency department physicians to alleviate the pressure on beds within the hospitals,” he said.
The increase in numbers coincided with the return of holidaymakers. Many people had left the province for the festive season and started returning at the beginning of January which saw numbers skyrocketing.
In a bid to contain and trace infected individuals, the province decided to set up testing posts at some of the freeways into Gauteng to test people.
But some questioned the logic of testing people, letting them go and only telling them they were positive two days later when they had already interacted with others.
Asked about this, Kekana said: “We conducted screening and testing efforts at roadblocks, these are for a particular period. They were in collaboration with law enforcement to check compliance and to test those with symptoms. Testing of people in any area allows us for the detection of infections. Positive people can then isolate and not infect others.”
Unions have also hit out at the province's handling of the situation at Steve Biko Hospital. President of the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union, Lerato Mthunzi, said the department had confirmed that the hospital was overwhelmed due to the growing number of Covid-19 infections. However, instead of erecting decent structures to shelter patients and medical staff, the department opted for tents.
"It is clear that the government has failed to prepare for this eventuality, resulting in our people being treated under inhumane conditions. This is very unacceptable.
“We are against the use of tents for Covid-19. We need new wards to be built in preparation for the third and fourth wave that is anticipated instead of the reactionary response that we are seeing from the government," she said.
The focus is now on shifting back to the multimillion-rand facilities that were established at the beginning of the outbreak.
The provincial department said it intended utilising the Nasrec facility in Johannesburg that is said to have 1 000 beds. The centre remains the only one still open following the closure of three others.
This week, Premier David Makhura said they would be using the Nasrec field hospital and were also looking again at the contracts which were in place during the first wave of the pandemic.
“We are going back to Nasrec. Our healthcare system was able to cope during the first wave. As we speak now, Nasrec has 500 beds which will be able to deal with critical care and 500 for quarantine,” Makhura said.