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Infectious Diseases

Updated 24 July 2020

Coronavirus morning update: Public schools to shut, and Covid corruption warning

All public schools will close until 24 August, with some some exceptions; and President Cyril Ramaphosa vows to crack down on corruption related to Covid-19 relief funds.

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN SA

Cases update: 

The latest number of confirmed cases is 408 052.

According to the latest update, 6 093 of deaths have been recorded in the country.

There have been 236 260 recoveries.

So far, just over 2.6 million tests have been conducted, with 46 632 new tests.

READ MORE | All the confirmed cases of coronavirus in SA

Latest news:

A week after teachers' unions called for schools to close amid the upcoming peak in Covid-19 infections in South Africa, Cabinet has decided to shut all public schools for four weeks - but there are exceptions.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Thursday, while addressing the nation, that public schools would close from 27 July to 24 August.

Grade 12s will, however, only take a week's break and return on 3 August.

Grades 7s will get a two-week break, returning on 10 August.

"Specific arrangements will be made for different categories of special schools. As a result of the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the current academic year will be extended beyond the end of 2020.

"The minister of basic education will provide details on the management of the remainder of the school year," said Ramaphosa.

Ramaphosa said the decision was taken following engagement with the Department of Basic Education and more than 60 organisations representing parents, school governing bodies, principals, educators, independent schools and civil society organisations.

READ | Ramaphosa declares schools will shut for 4 weeks - but Grade 12s get 1 week's break

The coronavirus has infected around 13 000 health workers and killed more than 100 of them, the health department said on Thursday, as the virus takes its toll on frontline caregivers.

The country has the highest number of infections on the continent, with 394 948 recorded cases and 5 940 deaths as of Wednesday.

It is also the world's fifth worst-affected country in terms of diagnosed infections.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize's spokesperson, Popo Maja, told AFP that 13 174 health workers had become infected as of Tuesday, including 103 deaths and 6 394 people declared recovered.

The country's statistics were unveiled as the World Health Organization (WHO) reported more than 10 000 health workers in 40 countries had been sickened by the virus.

"The growth we are seeing in Covid-19 cases in Africa is placing an ever-greater strain on health services across the continent," said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, at a news conference on Thursday.

"This has very real consequences for the individuals who work in them, and there is no more sobering example of this than the rising number of health worker infections," she said.

READ MORE | More than 13 000 health workers contracted coronavirus - health dept

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday vowed to crack down on corruption or mismanagement relating to Covid-19 relief funds, saying the consequences would be "very, very severe" for those found guilty.

In an address to the nation in the evening, the president said the government had established a "coordinating centre" to strengthen efforts between law enforcement agencies and investigate allegations of corruption relating to social relief grants, procurement of personal protective equipment, and distribution of food parcels.

A total of 36 cases are already at an advanced stage of investigation, the president said, without going into specifics. 

The coordinating hub, which is based at the Financial Intelligence Centre, brings together nine state institutions including the FIC, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Hawks, the South African Revenue Service, the State Security Agency and the Special Investigations Unit.

READ MORE | Ramaphosa vows 'very, very severe' consequences for theft of Covid-19 relief funds

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has announced urgent support for the Eastern Cape's health authorities in the wake of record deaths in the past few days - more than 400 reported in Wednesday's update.

At a press conference in Port Elizabeth on Thursday, Mkhize announced a high-powered "project management team" has been appointed to "to help the health service to cope better".

This, after project management had been identified as a "weakness" in the province. The skilled team would assist health authorities with "quick decision-making" and "agility", in particular.

Second, the Eastern Cape is being assisted with infrastructure and equipment. Overall, all available hospital beds are not yet filled - but the province is witnessing shortages in specific.

"Some of the smaller hospitals are taking strain," Mkhize said on eNCA. Efforts would now be made to increase beds "in areas of need... because of the vastness of the province".

READ MORE | Mkhize unlocks urgent help for Eastern Cape as Covid-19 deaths soar

Tracing and retesting of 111 people, whose Covid-19 samples were lost when criminals pounced on a courier truck during a heist in Port Elizabeth on Monday, is underway.

National Health Laboratory Service spokesperson Mzimasi Gcukumana said: "The NHLS have allocated healthcare workers to contact the patients and make arrangements to collect new samples."

The bio-hazard samples went missing on Monday when two workers, from a courier company hired by the NHLS to collect samples from local clinics, were ambushed by two gunmen.

The incident happened at 15:30 in Motherwell's NU 11 section. The truck was found abandoned 500m away with the samples missing. The courier drivers were also robbed at gunpoint of their cellphones.

The police are investigating a case of hijacking. The suspects remain at large, confirmed police spokesperson Colonel Priscila Naidu.

READ MORE | Covid-19: More than 100 people must now be retested after samples lost in PE truck hijacking

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 Thursday night, positive cases worldwide were over 15.3 million, while deaths were more than 625 000.

The United States had the most cases in the world - just over 4 million, as well as the most deaths - close to 144 000.

READ MORE | All the confirmed cases worldwide

Latest news:

Australia reported its highest daily number of coronavirus-related deaths in three months on Thursday as new infections continued to climb in its second most populous state.

Victoria state said it had confirmed another 403 infections, while five people had died from the virus in the last 24 hours.

The fatalities, including a man in his 50s, mark the country's biggest one-day rise in Covid-19 deaths since late April.

"This demonstrates the growing toll this terrible virus is taking on our community," Health Minister Jenny Mikakos told reporters in the state capital, Melbourne.

With authorities unable to bring new infections below triple digits, residents in Melbourne and most of the state are now required to wear masks outside of their homes.

READ MORE | Australia reports highest coronavirus deaths in 3 months, infections climb

The Republic of Zimbabwe enforced one of the strictest nationwide lockdowns in Africa on Wednesday after the number of active coronavirus cases surpassed the number of recoveries in the country.

However, activists and commentators believe the new lockdown measures were introduced in light of the arrest of award-winning Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin'ono and a planned nationwide protest on 31 July. 

Zimbabwe, one of South Africa's closest neighbours and a major export partner, confirmed 1 820 Covid-19 cases, including 488 recoveries and 26 deaths.

This is up from 605 cases, 166 recoveries and seven deaths at the beginning of July. 

News24 took a look at why Zimbabwe enforced such a strict national lockdown, and why commentators are questioning the government's motives. 

EXPLAINER | What's happening in Zimbabwe regarding Covid-19?

This year's haj will be a time of sadness for many Muslims around the world prevented from travelling to Saudi Arabia, but a decision to honour local health and security staff in the front line of the fight against the coronavirus has won praise.

For the first time in the modern era, amidst efforts to curb Covid-19, Muslims from abroad will be unable to attend the pilgrimage.

This year's event has been limited to about 1 000 pilgrims from within Saudi Arabia, 70% of whom will be foreign residents of the kingdom.

The remaining 30% will be drawn from Saudi healthcare workers and security personnel who have recovered from the coronavirus, as a gesture of thanks for their sacrifice.

"Haj this year is for the heroes who saved the country and saved our people, they deserve it ... I personally would have loved to go but there are priorities," said Saudi citizen Nour al Ghamdi.

READ MORE | Pandemic hit to haj saddens would-be pilgrims

LATEST RESEARCH & HEALTH NEWS

As South Africa is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases, overtaking European hotspots like Italy, Spain and the UK in total case numbers, our cumulative case-fatality rate (CFR) appears to be a lot lower. 

As of 22 July, South Africa has nearly 395 000 confirmed cases, with 5 940 deaths. The UK has had more 45 586 deaths (nearly 297 000 cases) Spain more than 28 426 (more than 267 000 cases) and Italy more than 35 082 (more than 245 000 cases), despite lower case numbers.

While the stats are impacted by targeted testing strategies with an assumed high rate of underdetection, experts have given Health24 a few possible reasons why our mortality rate is lower. 

An important concept to grasp is to understand the calculation of the CFR, says Professor Taryn Young, head of Stellenbosch University's Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

This looks at the confirmed number of deaths compared with the confirmed number of cases by dividing the number of deaths by the number of confirmed cases.

"How countries define and report Covid-19-related deaths is important," says Young. "There is the definition on the one hand, and on the other how it gets reported. For example, reporting based on death certificate will take longer and may not reflect in the data on the day the person died."

READ MORE | Covid-19: More cases than UK, Spain, Italy - but SA has lower mortality rate - we asked experts why

Oxford University’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate, AZD-1222, proved to be safe and effective with few side effects, preliminary trial results showed on Monday. According to pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, they have finalised a license agreement with Oxford University for the vaccine candidate.

Earlier this week, the BBC initially reported that the UK government has already ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, and later added that the government signed deals for an additional 90 million doses of the other promising BioNtech/Pfizer and Valneva vaccines. (These two vaccines are being researched by an alliance between the pharmaceutical companies BioNtech and Pfizer, as well as the firm Valneva.)

AstraZeneca, however, doesn’t have any direct involvement with South Africa’s vaccine trial as the agreement to do the trial here preceded Oxford’s agreement with AstraZeneca for further clinical development and manufacturing of the vaccine, said Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, during an ECN (Economist Corporate Network) Africa webinar today. Madhi is leading the SA trial. 

South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine trial is being funded by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

At the moment, there is no agreement with AstraZeneca to prioritise access to the vaccine for South Africa, should it prove successful. But this wouldn’t be unique to South Africa, said Madhi.

READ MORE | Covid-19 vaccine trial in SA: Will we have access to treatment if it is a success, and approved?

Earlier this week, Health24 reported on the latest development in the Oxford coronavirus vaccine trial that began in April. Preliminary results, published in The Lancet, showed that the vaccine, named AZD-1222, triggered a positive immune response in participants and indicated no early safety concerns.

Although the results so far are promising, we still have a long way to go. Health24 spoke to Honorary Professor Robert Wilkinson from the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and Director of The Wellcome Centre for Infectious Diseases Research in Africa (CIDRI-Africa); and Professor Thomas Scriba, Deputy Director of Immunology and Laboratory Director at UCT, about the steps ahead.

The recently published results are a positive breakthrough, no doubt, but is it too early to get excited about the possibility of a vaccine? Well, it depends on how you look at it. 

“The fact that there were no serious adverse events recorded in this trial is definitely a positive result and an exciting one," said Scriba, adding: "Of course, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves and think that this [vaccine] is ready to be rolled out. That’s not the case. But it’s an important step forward.”

It’s also critical that the testing is done in other countries with diverse population groups, so that the results can accurately represent the population group, and so that we know it’s safe to be used in these groups, explained Scriba. South Africa, Brazil and the US are also currently running trials, with results in SA expected as early as November, Health24 recently reported.

READ MORE | Oxford vaccine trial step in right direction, but challenges still ahead

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