A further four South African are suspected of having contracted Covid-19 and have been placed in quarantine as the government gears up its testing, treatment and quarantine measures to combat the spread of the disease.
At a briefing on Monday, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced that the four had been tested at private laboratories and that confirmatory tests by the National Health Laboratory Services were still being done.
The briefing was called by the government to allow ministers to update the country on the implementation of the state of disaster declared by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday night.
Mkhize said that two of the South Africans repatriated from Wuhan, China, at the weekend had been placed in isolation as a precautionary measure after they had shown a “very slight” cough. They will be monitored while the test results are awaited.
Mkhize said that it was crucial that decisive steps be taken early to prevent the spread of the disease, as about 15% of those who contracted it ended up in hospital, and around 5% end up in intensive care.
About 85 % of patients, he said, could recover at home while maintaining self-quarantine and undergoing treatment.
“Containment is possible, but difficult, if we intervene at an early stage. If we don’t intervene at an early stage, we don’t have much chance,” Mkhize said.
“Delayed action could overwhelm the health system. If we wait until the numbers run into the several hundreds and thousands we run the risk of overwhelming the health services,” he said.
Mkhize said that while some of the restrictions “may be unpalatable”, they were the “lightest” measures that could be taken. “We are appealing to people to understand. Even if they don’t see the disaster as we see it, they need to know that we need to take extraordinary steps to ensure we prevent an escalation.”
Tracking and testing capacity would be increased, while at a district level quarantine and treatment capacity was being built up as the government went into a “higher gear” to prevent the further “explosive” increase in the number of cases.
“It is going to be very hard, but we are determined to suffer as few casualties as possible,” he said.
Mkhize warned that the next two to three weeks were crucial in terms of preventing the spread of the virus, and slowing down the numbers of those infected and the extent of the outbreak. “If that does not work we will need to escalate to a higher level. South Africans need to be aware of this.”
“We cannot rule out the need to impose a state of emergency in the future,” he said.
If things got “out of hand”, a lockdown could be instituted if necessary.
“We hope not to get to those steps,” Mkhize added.