Virus Surge Puts South African Hospitals Under Severe Strain

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South African private hospital operators have warned that they are facing severe capacity constraints due to a resurgence in coronavirus cases.

The Covid-19 pandemic first peaked in Africa’s most industrialized economy in late July before infections tailed off. The country is in the midst of a second wave of the disease that began shortly before the festive season -- which sees millions of people traverse the country to holiday destinations and home towns and villages.

Netcare Ltd., Life Healthcare Group Holdings Ltd. and Mediclinic International Plc, the country’s three biggest private hospital groups, which had spare capacity in most areas during the initial surge, all said they were confronting bed shortages. State hospitals have also reported a rise in coronavirus cases.

In four of South Africa’s most populous provinces, “we have noted a substantial resurgence in Covid-19 patients and the health-care system is under significant pressure,” said Charl van Loggerenberg, Life Healthcare’s general manager of emergency medicine. Intensive care and high-care units are “particularly under severe strain” in the KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape and Eastern Cape regions, he said.

Besides admitting more Covid-19 patients, the hospitals are also having to administer additional treatment.

“We are seeing a significantly higher demand for oxygenation of sick patients versus the first wave,” Netcare’s Chief Executive Officer Richard Friedland said in an emailed response to questions. “We have seen more cases in both the Eastern Cape and Western Cape, and expect to exceed the number of cases seen in the first wave in KwaZulu-Natal this week.”

Case numbers in South Africa’s economic hub of Gauteng, which was already on the rise, is expected to spike when holidaymakers return in early January, Friedland said.

All three companies are recruiting more nurses, temporarily relocating staff to hotspot areas and making contingency plans to convert additional wards to accommodate Covid-19 patients. Non-essential surgical cases are largely being postponed.

New Variant

South Africa has reported a spread of a new SARS-CoV2 lineage with multiple spike mutations, which may be driving new infections.

At this stage, treatment guidelines haven’t changed, said Gerrit de Villiers, a group general manager at Mediclinic.

The new lineage has become dominant in the Western Cape, and has probably spread across most of the country, according to Keith Cloete, head of the province’s health department. It has spread faster than other variants, with smaller amounts of this strain needed to infect people, he said.

The province is considering whether further restrictions are needed, including curtailing Christmas church services.

In Cape Town, hospitals are expected “to come under even more pressure,” Cloete said. “That’s why we need a radical intervention to safeguard the public and private healthcare system over the festive season, he said.

There have been 930,711 confirmed coronavirus infections in South Africa so far, and 24,907 people diagnosed with the disease have died, according to the Health Department.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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