The nurse began crying when describing her job in a Johannesburg hospital: 20 of her colleagues have tested positive.
“A lot, a lot, a lot of people are coming in daily.”
South Africa’s Coronavirus instances that were reported quadrupled in June — the rate of growth of new cases is picking up although some of that is due to efforts to clear a testing backlog. Its hospitals are now bracing for an onslaught of individuals, setting up temporary wards, and hoping advances in treatment can help the health facilities of the country from becoming overwhelmed.
The surge comes as the nation has allowed businesses to reopen in recent months to stave off economic crisis following a strict order worsened already high unemployment and drastically increased hunger. In Johannesburg, the largest city, health officials said they are currently considering reimposing some restrictions to attempt and slow the quickening spread of the virus.
“We are seeing a spike in infections in Johannesburg. The number of people that we are diagnosing on a daily basis today is absolutely terrifying,” said Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology in Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, who’s directing a vaccine trial in South Africa in collaboration with Britain’s University of Oxford. “Who we are discovering positive today is an indicator of who will be in hospital three weeks from today.”
Last week, the vaccine trial started, and Madhi said he’s surprised.
“It is difficult to see how our hospitals are going to be able to deal with it,” he said. “Our centers are reaching a tipping point.”
COVID-19 has highlighted South Africa’s inequalities, he said. “But the bad, living in higher density areas, without good access to running water, access to healthcare, the poorest will suffer the most.”
South Africa, with almost 40 percent of the cases on the entire continent and 58 million people, has seen the number of infections rise from 34,000 to more than 168,000 at the start of June on Friday.
Overnight it reported its biggest daily number of new confirmed cases — 8,728.
As of Friday, 2,844 people had died, according to official figures. But predictions by health experts have warned that South Africa could see more than 70,000 deaths prior to the end of 2020 from COVID-19.
African nations are watching warily as the country with the best-equipped and best-staffed health system of the continent hurtles toward a summit that may overwhelm it.
“It is anticipated that, while each state will, unfortunately, witness an increase in their numbers, areas, where there’s a high amount of economic activity, will undergo an exponential rise,” Mkhize said this week.
Concerns about the virus spreading in the minibus taxis that millions of South Africans use to sail grew this week when the taxi association said the minivans would operate at full capacity of up to 15 passengers, despite government orders to carry only 70% capacity.
Johannesburg is catching up, although Cape Town has been the country’s epicenter of the disease.
Mkhize said will surpass Cape Town and will need more hospital beds.
Thursday Gauteng hospitals already have 3,000 COVID-19 patients, the province’s premier David Makhura told reporters. He said bed capacity would be significantly increased at the end of July and denied reports that patients are turned away. He said the reopening of schools set for next week may be postponed and warned that constraints could be reimposed to combat the surge.
To increase its hospital capacity, convention centers have been converted by South Africa in Cape Town and Johannesburg, assembled wards in huge tents, and turned into a Volkswagen car plant into a treatment center. Still, finding staff to tend to those beds is a challenge.
“It is overwhelming,” said Dr. Hermann Reuter of his work in the outside ward, run by Khayelitsha District Hospital with the aid of Doctors Without Borders.
President Cyril Ramaphosa recently advised the country to prepare for tough times ahead, saying that many may find themselves”despondent and fearful” in the weeks and months to come.
“It might be that things have gotten worse, but we’re certain that they will get better,” he said.
For nurses at the Johannesburg hospital, those days appear to have arrived.