Since March 5, when a 38-year-old man who returned home from an Italian ski trip became South Africa’s first case of COVID-19, the government has conducted an aggressive search operation to root out the virus.
South Africa was among the first countries to implement COVID-19 diagnostic testing, according to the World Health Organization.
If South Africans were unable or unwilling to seek medical attention, then medical professionals sought them. About 28,000 community health workers have been dispatched to go door-to-door detecting COVID-19 cases, according to WHO. And the Department of Health has deployed 67 mobile lab vans with on-site testing capacity to designated hot spots across the country.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases reports that South Africa has administered 998,400 COVID-19 tests. In addition to leading the continent in testing, South Africa also leads the continent in the number of confirmed cases with 55,421.
That is not a bad thing, if you ask Dr. John Nkengasong, director for the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
“They have a better handle of what is going on in their country because they are testing more,” said Dr. Nkengasong earlier today during his weekly news conference. “They will know when their peak will plateau. If they weren’t testing, they would be fighting the virus in the dark.”
Yesterday, the Africa CDC reported that confirmed cases on the continent surpassed the 200,000 mark. Still, sub-Saharan Africa along with Algeria, account for the lowest number of COVID-19 infections of all the six WHO regions; the region with the most infections is the Americas with nearly 3.5 million cases.
Officials expect cases to climb as lockdowns, which aren’t intended to last forever, ease across the continent.
“We should always remember the purpose of lockdowns,” Dr. Nkengasong said. “It’s to make sure we secure space to intensify public health measures.”
Those measures include the need to increase testing, trace contacts and bolster treatment facilities, explained Dr. Nkengasong: “South Africa has done all of those things.”
Last week, the African Union rolled out its Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing, an initiative known as PACT: Test, Trace, Treat. It was established to prevent transmission and deaths and minimize the social and economic impact from COVID-19 throughout member states, said Dr. Nkengasong.
Thus far, there have been about 3.4 million tests administered across the continent; about 2.5 million of those tests were distributed by the Africa CDC. The PACT initiative aims to increase that testing number by an additional 10 million in the next few months. In total, this will account for one percent of the population of the continent tested.
Under the initiative, one million community workers will be dispatched throughout member states to assist with contact tracing. Also, 100,000 healthcare workers will be trained to support the COVID-19 response, and those healthcare workers will then train other healthcare workers across the continent.
Technology and tracing apps can’t replace shoe-leather epidemiology on the continent, explained Dr. Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, deputy director for the Africa CDC, who expressed concern for those vulnerable populations who live in rural areas.
“They are the most disadvantaged and getting them to a health facility can be difficult,” Dr. Ogwell Ouma said. “It’s important that they understand the need for testing. We need those community health workers to be our bridge to reach those folks in the informal settlements.”
Dr. Nkengasong challenged African nations to be aggressive and bold in their implementation of the PACT initiative. “There needs to be a balance between saving lives and livelihoods,” he said, warning that the situation will get worse before it gets better.
“If we continue our public health measures,” Dr. Nkengasong said, “we will have a good chance of unlocking our economies safely in a sustainable way.”