Dr Zweli Mkhize

More than 24 000 health workers have contracted the coronavirus in the country of whom 181 have died. Speaking early this morning at a virtual briefing to update the media on the latest developments around the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize says the latest statistics show that health workers contribute to 5% of the total number of more than 527 000 positive cases that have been reported to date.

Mkhize says provinces have now been requested to further verify and break down this data to enable his department to verify how many health workers have died and recovered as well as to provide a full breakdown of the categories of health workers who have been infected.

Lack of PPE contributing to healthcare worker deaths

He says the department is concerned about increasing claims that healthcare workers are contracting the virus and dying due to a lack or poor quality of PPE and the failure or neglect by the management of facilities to adhere to prescribed workplace safety protocols. A task team led by Head of Surgery at Pretoria University, Prof Taole Mokoena and comprising of medical, nursing and legal professionals has been appointed to investigate allegations sparked by the death of a doctor of COVID-19 at the George Mukhari Hospital which has been attributed to a lack of sufficient PPE and unsafe working environments.  Provinces have also been instructed to ensure that PPE is made available immediately to facilities where problems have been reported and to establish Occupational Health and Safety Committees to facilitate communication and cooperation between unions and management. These committees should be fully functional within a week. This will enable staff and unions to raise issues and if satisfactory resolutions are not found escalate them to the relevant MECs, Dr Mkhize said.

Decline in reported cases

Referring to the rapid decrease in the number of positive cases seen in the past two days, Dr Mkhize said while concerns have been raised that the plateau that is observed in some provinces could be attributed to reduced testing numbers, a decline has also been seen in Covid-19-related hospital admissions and people under investigation (PUIs) presenting at health facilities.

However, he cautioned that it is still too early to make conclusions regarding the observed decline. In response to reports of excess deaths in the country by the Medical Research Council, the Department  now requires that before death certificates are issued specimens be taken for COVID-19 testing in cases of sudden death or where people have died at home.

Reduction in ICU deaths after introduction of dexamethasone

According Dr Mkhize, the latest numbers show that there has been an improvement in the survival rate and a decline in mortality in patients admitted to ICU which could be attributed to the use of dexamethasone. He says one study showed that ICU mortality has been reduced by 25% since the introduction of the drug in June.

“In another study undertaken by the Medical Research Council, ICU survival rates showed a dramatic improvement at 30-40% whereas the ICU mortality rate at the beginning of the pandemic was around 80%. Notwithstanding these encouraging scenarios, we have directed all provinces to enter into service level agreements with private health facilities to ensure that when bed shortages are experienced that alternative can be explored,” Dr Mkhize noted.

WHO team deployed to SA

He announced that the World Health Organisation has deployed a team of 43 senior experts including renowned infectious disease specialists such as Dr David Heymann, from around the world to South Africa of whom the first 17 will arrive in the country today. They will be quarantined before being deployed within the department and across the provinces. The team will be led from Geneva by the Executive Director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, Dr Mike Ryan and will provide the DoH with constant advice and analyse the country’s health strategies during the pandemic.

Dr Mkhize says this is not only an opportunity to improve the country’s health strategies during the pandemic but also to accelerate government’s path towards healthcare reform.