South Africa to Stop Contact Tracing as 80% Have Some Immunity
(Bloomberg) -- South Africa will stop coronavirus contact tracing and won’t ask those who’ve been directly exposed to infected people to quarantine, indicating a shift away from tough restrictions to contain the pandemic.
Authorities in Africa’s most-industrialized nation will only try and track the spread of the disease in a cluster outbreak, the nation’s director-general of health said in a circular dated Thursday. As much as 80% of the population have some sort of immunity from prior illness or vaccines, the department said.
“Containment strategies are no longer appropriate -- mitigation is the only viable strategy,” Sifiso Buthelezi said in the missive. “Quarantine has been costly to essential services and society as many people stay away from their work and thus lose their income.”
While South Africa’s contact tracing has been negligible compared with many countries outside the continent, the move still represents a change in approach even as the highly transmissible omicron variant continues to rage. The government declared a state of disaster when the coronavirus arrived in March 2020, and has followed an alert level-based system of curbs depending on the prevalence of infections ever since.
The rationale provided for the strategy change “is that the quarantine process does not have a major effect in terms of chains of transmission and is difficult to implement and sustain,” Adrian Puren, acting executive director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
The shift may also be influenced by South Africa’s push to recover from its deepest economic contraction in at least a quarter century last year. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg predict gross domestic product will expand 4.9% in 2021, compared with a previous estimate of 5.1%, partly due to travel bans that followed omicron’s emergence.
The nation’s official jobless rate is at a record of almost 35%, with a lack of major sports and entertainment events restricting even informal work.
Omicron was identified by scientists in South Africa and Botswana last month, and the region has been the front runner in the latest phase of the global pandemic. Yet there are positive indications that the variant does not lead to the same extent of severe illness and death as previous incarnations, and the South African government has held off toughening containment measures as a result.
Those contracting Covid-19 in the current fourth wave of infections are 80% less likely to be hospitalized compared with other strains, according to a study released by the NICD this week. Meanwhile, there are indications the surge may already have peaked in some areas, with the reproductive rate -- or the number of people to which each infected person passes on the virus -- falling below one in Gauteng, omicron’s original epicenter.
That may be affected by the time of year, which sees many migrant workers and holiday makers travel out of Johannesburg and Pretoria to rural and coastal areas.
The seven-day rolling average of new confirmed infections in the country has slumped to less than 17,000 from a peak of more than 23,000 on Dec. 18, although that data may also be skewed by reporting lags over the holiday seasons and the rationing of tests. Just over 9,200 Covid-19 patients are currently hospitalized, about half the number during the height of previous waves.
“The initial data show that inland provinces have reached a peak and Gauteng has a sharp decline in cases,” Puren said. “It does not mean that we are over the fourth resurgence as there is still accumulation of cases and the coastal provinces have not reached their peak infections.”
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