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Infectious Diseases

Updated 27 May 2020

Coronavirus morning update: Latest on cigarette ban, more on hotspots, and testing backlogs

Your latest coronavirus news: Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is sticking to her guns on the medical reasons for the cigarette ban; Covid-19 hotspots could remain at Level 4 as the country moves to Level 3 on 1 June, according to the health minister; and an expert gives us insight into testing backlogs.

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN SA

Cases update: 

The latest number of confirmed cases is 24 264.

According to the latest update, 524 deaths have been recorded in the country.

There have been 12 741 recoveries.

So far, just short of 606 000 tests have been conducted, with 9 214 new tests.

READ MORE | All the confirmed cases of coronavirus in SA

Latest news:

Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma stuck to her guns on the medical reasons for the cigarette ban during the Covid-19 pandemic, and denied being friends with self-confessed cigarette smuggler Adriano Mazzotti.

Dlamini-Zuma and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize briefed the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mkhize said it was not even worth debating the matter, and it could never be said that tobacco was an essential service.

After Dlamini-Zuma and Mkhize briefed the NCOP, DA MP Cathlene Labuschagne enquired about the controversial cigarette ban.

READ MORE | Coronavirus: Dlamini-Zuma, Mkhize double down on cigarette ban

Covid-19 hotspots could remain at Level 4 as the country moves to Level 3 on 1 June, with the possibility they could be moved to a hard lockdown if measures to curtail the spread of the virus fail.

This according to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize who announced it to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on Tuesday.

He said high-risk areas would be classified as hotspots and they would remain at Level 4 lockdown restrictions with intensive implementation of screening and testing.

This despite President Cyril Ramaphosa saying on Sunday evening the whole country should be lowered from Level 4 to 3 with effect from 1 June.

"Even as we move to alert Level 3 it is important that we should be aware that there are a few parts of the country where the disease is concentrated and where infections continue to rise.

"We will have a differentiated approach to deal with those areas that have far higher levels of infection and transmission. These areas will be declared coronavirus hotspots."

READ MORE | Lockdown: Hotspots could remain at Level 4, says Mkhize

Western Cape Premier Alan Winde says he is feeling some relief after inspecting the new 850-bed field hospital at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC), which is set to be a modern, paperless facility to reduce Covid-19 transmission risks.

"I'm relieved," Winde said on Tuesday as he personally inspected the CTICC in a media tour.

In a fortnight, this widely-regarded jewel in the crown of South African tourism will be ready to accommodate up to 850 Covid-19 sufferers. It will be the largest temporary field hospital in the country, in a province where cases have soared quicker than in the rest of the country.

Winde said of the "pivot" to transform the tourism facility into a medical care site: "It was quite impressive. In my job, every single day, I look at the numbers, I look at the numbers of infections climbing every single day, the hospitalisation numbers climbing, and you think to yourself: 'Are we prepared? Do we have sufficient bed space, et cetera.

"You walk in here – it is firstly a bit sobering, you see all these rows of beds, but it is also a relief to see. Just a few weeks [ago] we were talking about it – and two weeks later we are standing in this facility, with all these beds in place. It definitely gives you that sense of relief. And hope and recovery, which is what this place is all about."

READ MORE | CTICC transformed into paperless field hospital to boost Covid-19 fight

President Cyril Ramaphosa says the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) has decided that places of worship may resume services, but under strict conditions.

According to the president, the NCCC had recognised calls from religious leaders across the country, which is why faith-based organisations would now be allowed to congregate - under Level 3 regulations.

The religious sector had fiercely lobbied to be allowed to gather, arguing that many people had been experiencing emotional and psychological distress due to the coronavirus outbreak and the lockdown. It had barred them from practising their faith at churches and from engaging with religious leaders.

In an address to the nation on Tuesday evening, Ramaphosa said places of worship could reopen from 1 June, when alert Level 3 kicks in. This is with strict restrictions, he added.

READ MORE | The faithful may gather as govt opens up places of worship, with Level 3 restrictions in place

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN THE REST OF THE WORLD 

Cases update:

For the latest global data, follow this interactive map from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.

Late on Tuesday night, positive cases worldwide were more than 5.55 million, while deaths were more than 348 000.

The United States had the most cases in the world - more than 1.67 million, as well as the most deaths - more than 98 500.

READ MORE | All the confirmed cases worldwide

Latest news:

Spain is to hold 10 days of official mourning for victims of the coronavirus epidemic that has so far claimed nearly 27 000 lives, the government said on Tuesday.

The mourning period is to begin on Wednesday when all flags on public buildings will be lowered to half-mast in a country that has suffered one of the most deadly outbreaks of the virus.

Writing on Twitter, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said it would be "10 days, the longest period of mourning in our democracy, in which we will all express our sorrow and pay homage to those who have died."

The mourning period, which was approved at Tuesday's cabinet meeting, would also include an official ceremony to honour victims presided over by King Felipe VI, government spokesperson Maria Jesus Montero said.

READ MORE | Spain to hold 10 days of mourning for virus victims

LATEST RESEARCH

While coronavirus testing increased week-on-week since early in April, a decrease in testing has been observed in the week ending 17 May, according to a report from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

The week-on-week increase, the NICD said, was on the back of "a larger network of testing laboratories and the implementation of targeted community symptom screening, and referral for testing".

However, according to the NICD, for the week ending 17 May, a decrease in testing volumes has been observed – likely due to a limited number of testing kits, and laboratory testing backlogs.

In the report, laboratory delays are indicated by an increase in the number of days between the day the test is done and the specimen collected, and the reporting of the result. Currently, the turnaround time for the public sector increased from two days to more than six days (in the weeks leading up to week 20 - the week ending 17 May), while the turnaround in the private sector remained less than two days.

A reduction in testing volumes was also observed over weekends and public holidays, according to the report from the NICD.

READ MORE | Latest on Covid-19 testing in SA: Public sector backlogs more than 6 days – an expert tells us more

Over the last few months, we’ve been inundated with news about research and vaccine development as various expert teams are rushing towards finding a successful vaccine against the new coronavirus.

While waiting for a vaccine or any other effective treatment, many parts of the world are relying on so-called “new norms” of physical distancing and lockdown measures.

Meanwhile, the first coronavirus vaccine to reach phase 1 clinical trial has been found to be safe, well-tolerated and able to generate an immune response against SARS-Cov-2 in humans, according to a news release.

This research was published in The Lancet.

READ MORE | Human trial of a coronavirus vaccine shows safe and promising results

The immune system response triggered by Covid-19, causing an overproduction of cytokines, has been big news during the pandemic.

While Covid-19 deaths are usually caused by acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), especially in older adults and those with co-morbidities, some younger Covid-19 patients have suffered severe symptoms because of an overreaction by their immune systems, rather than the virus itself.

Now, a new clinical trial will test a treatment that targets this immune response, according to a press release from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

According to leading immunologists in Japan, a molecular mechanism could lead to possible ways to treat this overreaction by the immune system. The research was published in the journal Immunity.

READ MORE | More insight into the cytokine storm caused by Covid-19 could lead to a treatment

HEALTH TIPS (as recommended by the NICD and WHO)

• Maintain physical distancing – stay at least one metre away from somebody who is coughing or sneezing

• Practise frequent hand-washing, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as your hands touch many surfaces and could potentially transfer the virus

• Practise respiratory hygiene – cover your mouth with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Remember to dispose the tissue immediately after use.

Image credit: Getty Images