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‘It is here now’ — Free State premier on coronavirus

All the big events that usually take place in the Free State are off, amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus to the province.

Free State Premier Sisi Ntombela made the announcement at a press briefing hosted by Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize on Friday. Earlier in the briefing, Mkhize revealed that the province now has seven confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

“After I was briefed by the minister and I understood very clearly about how serious this thing is, I took the decision to say all big activities are going to be cancelled,” Ntombela said.

“Because, I thought it would take us two to three months, but I have learned that this thing can take us the whole year.”

She added: “And after seeing what has happened, I have realised our people in the Free State are in danger.”

Ntombela noted the Free State’s high unemployment and poverty levels — as well as the province’s 147 informal settlements — as cause for concern. 

The budget usually used to hold big events in the Free State will instead be used “to assist our people”, Ntombela said.

“We are going to take that budget to make sure that we are going to have more gloves, more sanitisers, to assist our people in informal settlements with water … But definitely that budget is going straight to assist our people to fight this war of this disease,” she added.

“We have no choice but to protect our own people.”

Message from the premier

Ntombela had a message for the residents of the Free State: “Yes, it is here now. It is with us now. And indeed more people are going to be affected. But please remember, we must not panic … And all that we must do now is for us to be strong, for us to be united and for us not to lose hope.”

Earlier in the briefing Mkhize provided details about the Free State cases and the measures being taken to contain the spread of the virus in the province.

“There are specific areas that we have had to take into account in the case of the Free State,” Mkhize said.

He said the first five reported cases in the province had recently returned from travelling overseas — to the United States, Israel and France. They went to a church gathering that was attended by between 200 and 300 congregants, Mkhize said. The church congregants are being traced and so their risk profiles can be evaluated.

Mkhize said these five people had been quarantined in a bed and breakfast, which means all its staff also need to be put under quarantine. 

The South African Red Cross will be providing 285 volunteers to help with contact tracing in the province, Mkhize said.

A mobile unit will also be dispatched by the national health laboratories to the Free State to assist with testing. “This will make it possible to screen and test up to 600 people today,” Mkhize said.

He added that areas with a concentrated set of contacts who have possibly been exposed to the virus will be dealt with in this way.

Mkhize also said that he had visited Brandwag Primary School in Bloemfontein, where 600 pupils are being screened for the virus.

He said one of the confirmed Free State cases is a health worker and mother of two. She has no history of international travel, but works in a number of private hospitals.

The patients that the health worker has treated have been identified and will be treated as the first set of contacts. The health worker’s children, who attend the school, have also been quarantined, although their tests are still being processed.

Mkhize said he has met the parents of learners, as well as the teachers at Brandwag Primary School. The school is attended by about 700 learners, he said.

If any learners are found to be positive, this will trigger another cycle of contact testing.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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