Rise in hospital admissions after new Covid-19 variant detected

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Inside a Covid intensive care ward where patients learn to stand and speak  again
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As a new Covid-19 variant with many mutations has been detected in the country, Gauteng hospitals are already seeing a rise in the number of admissions.

SA scientists are expected to brief the World Health Organisation’s technical working group on this variant. This variant was found on samples that were collected in Gauteng between November 12 and 20.

Scientists predict that the new variant may have “an enhanced transmissibility to spread from person to person and the ability to get to other parts of the immune system not just the neutralising antibodies”.

This comes as Gauteng, which currently accounts for 80% of all positive Covid-19 cases, is recording a rise in hospital admissions due to the pandemic.

Dr George Mukhari Academic Hospital in GaRankuwa, northern Pretoria, has admitted about 29 Covid-19 patients in just the last four days, while Thembisa Hospital, which had no Covid-19 patients in its wards just over a week ago, now have about 10 patients admitted.

Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto has seen a Covid-19 bed occupancy of 15% between November 18 and 24.

Dr George Mukhari Academic Hospital spokesperson Zwide Ndwandwe said they were already preparing for the worst of the anticipated fourth wave.

“The hospital has resurrected the Covid-19 war room committee that meets daily to monitor the developments and make necessary arrangements to meet any identified challenges,” Ndwandwe said.

He said all the resources that were set aside for the pandemic, including staff and dedicated ward, were still in place.

Steve Biko Academic Hospital CEO Dr Mathabo Mathebula said the number of Covid-19 patients has tripled to 21 in the past week alone.

“It’s getting worse day by day. We are as prepared as we can possibly be but the risk with Covid-19 is that it takes away the very same soldiers that you need to fight it,” Mathebula said.

Baragwanath Hospital CEO Dr Nkele Lesia said they were already in a position to “scale up services should the need arise using available resources” at the country’s biggest health facility.

“We are already in the fourth wave. Numbers are rising and we are seeing patients who are dependent on oxygen.” Said the Thembisa Hospital CEO Dr Ashley Mthunzi.

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According to scientists from the genomic surveillance network in SA. The new variant, which has been detected in Gauteng, is currently called B.1.1.529. And has a high number of mutations, which are concerning because of predicted immune evasion and transmissibility.

Prof Tulio de Oliveira, a renowned bioinformatician and member of the network said: They had requested “an urgent meeting with the WHO”.

De Oliveira said the new variant was. “A reason for concern in SA and so what we have done is to act very quick as a truly collaborative network of scientists in SA. Together with the government, to try and identify that as the cases are just starting to increase”.

He said they were working hard “to really know what is it we are really facing because you have to know the enemy in order to fight it”.

“Even though we detected it here, it doesn’t mean that the variant is from SA. It was just detected in SA, and we shouldn’t use any country’s name for discrimination,” he said. 

He said the variant had also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong and from SA travellers.

“Early signs from diagnostic laboratories show that B.1.1.529 has rapidly increased in Gauteng and may be present in most provinces,” De Oliveira said.

The Health minister Dr Joe Phaahla said that a rise in infection should be expected because a number of people are travelling to and from gauteng which might cause the infection to spread even more across the country by now.

Phaahla said it was concerning that this comes at a time when there’s a spike in infections, especially in Gauteng.

He said it was too early to predict how the country will respond but confirmed that the National Coronavirus Command Council chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa will meet at the weekend to discuss this matter.

Dr Richard Lessells, infectious diseases specialist, said the large number of mutations of the variant were a challenge.

“This gives us concern that this variant may not just have enhanced transmissibility but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system.”

Meanwhile, Limpopo MEC  for health Dr Phopi Ramathuba raised concern about the new Covid-19 variant as the province struggles to contain a cluster outbreak in the mining area of Lephalale. 

Ramathuba raised concern about the spike in Covid-19 infections at Exxaro Mine where it recorded 57 positive cases in four days. 

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