'All provinces are in trouble,' health department tells parliament

Amanda Khoza Presidency reporter
The national department of health has painted a bleak picture of the third wave.
The national department of health has painted a bleak picture of the third wave.
Image: 123RF/S SILVER

The health department on Thursday painted a bleak picture of what the country’s third wave looks like, with hospital admissions, daily infections and deaths continuing to soar.

Acting minister of health Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane appeared in parliament — along with health director-general Dr Sandile Buthelezi and other senior officials — to give an update on vaccine procurement, state of preparedness for the Covid-19 third wave and progress made on the Special Investigating Unit’s Digital Vibes probe.

On Thursday, more than 11,700 new cases were recorded,  with the most coming from Gauteng. This after 13,246 cases were recorded the day before.

The department's Dr Aquina Thulare told MPs it was of grave concern that “all the provinces are in trouble” showing a steep upward trend.

“Covid-19 cases have continued to increase for the sixth consecutive week. The new Covid-19 related deaths increased by 47.85% in the past seven days to 791 from 535 in the preceding seven days,” said Thulare, adding that there were 64 healthcare workers who tested positive in the past seven days.

On vaccinations, she said a total of 3,574,318 people had registered on the electronic vaccination data service (EVDS), the majority of those being above the age of 60.

Those over 60 will be vaccinated until July 16 and a process to begin vaccinating those who are 40 and above is about to begin.

A total of more than 1.9 million people have been vaccinated countrywide, 479,000 healthcare workers have been vaccinated under the J&J Sisonke trial, while more than one million have received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

The department is expecting a total of 31 million doses of the J&J vaccine and 30 million Pfizer vaccines. A further 1.3 million Pfizer doses are expected to come from the Covax facility.

This week the country is expected to receive 300,000 doses from J&J and more than 600,000 from Pfizer.

“Next week Monday we will receive 1.2 million from J&J and 1.2 million from Pfizer. The Pfizer from the Covax facility will arrive on June 28,” she said.

She said the government was still in discussion with both Pfizer and J&J on the scheduling of the vaccines.

There are 576 vaccination sites countrywide. 

“We have identified basic education as a sector that has to be prioritised because when we were looking at how we can source vaccines, additionally J&J approached the department on June 2 indicating that they had 479 800 vaccines available. We can use the same approach as the one we used for the healthcare workers.”

She said basic education and health are ready to execute the plan and “we are confident that we can vaccinate all educators with the 300,000 J&J vaccines arriving tomorrow in the next 10 working days.”

The department is also in discussion with police and the army on preparations for their vaccinations.

On registration, she said, “Registrations are not moving as fast as we want, we are not getting our target.”

Speaking on the state of preparedness of hospital beds, admissions and the availability of oxygen, Ramphelane Morowane said the country had 114,421 beds in private and public facilities.

There were 10,805 general (non-ICU) beds in both public and private healthcare facilities.

“There are only 5,616 ICU beds available in both public and private facilities, mainly in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Western Cape.”  

On oxygen consumption, Morowane said the department was investigating a sudden drop in the numbers in Gauteng.

Based on the lessons learnt in the past waves, Morowane said the department is working on a contingency plan with Afrox to supply oxygen.

“We think we have enough cylinders and we should be able to release them as and when they are needed. There is no province that will say to us there are not enough ventilators.”

The department said it expected to cross the two million vaccination mark on Thursday. It had aimed to vaccinate all the over 60s by the end of June but due to the vaccine hiccups, the department found itself two million vaccines behind. This was caused by the recent contamination of two million doses of the J&J vaccines stored in Gqeberha.

The department expressed that the challenge was more of supply than demand and also admitted that it would not meet its target of all the over 60s vaccinated because some citizens do not want to get vaccinated.

The NFP’s Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam expressed concern over the law enforcement around the country during the various alert levels. “It looks like they will only get it after the educators get it and many of them have been lost in the process.”

Shaik Emam asked if any healthcare workers had died after getting the vaccine. “Why have we not been concentrating on Sinovac, Sputnik and other vaccines which have been offered for free? I don’t blame the EFF for breaking regulations because on one hand you say the election must go on and on the other hand you say no gatherings.”

FF Plus MP Phillip van Staden suggested that mass screening in communities should continue.

“We have seen that the president placed us on level three to curb the further spread of the virus. I think if we carry on at this state in SA, it will take us 30 years to vaccinate the whole population, why not open the vaccination system for everyone with a first come first service system?”

The EFF’s Naledi Chirwa told MPs that the department had failed to meet any of the targets. “It means that effectively I am right in saying that the NDOH have a tendency of misleading this portfolio committee by bringing dates and number of things they won’t achieve because there is no accountability going to happen.”

Chirwa, who was later kicked out of the virtual sitting for interrupting other MPs, accused the department of being untruthful.

Responding, Kubayi-Ngubane said the matter of law enforcement was raised during the national coronavirus command council meetings.

On Sinovac and Sputnik V, she said the government was looking into the matter.

“There have been two applications, the first being Sinovac. Progress has been made and the team has done extensive work and Sahpra has received a report. The report to one company has been given back and they have fixed their issues that needed to be fixed, so we look like we are almost at the end of the process, where there is not much progress in regards to Sputnik.

“Remember there are regulatory processes that must be met, all vaccines that must meet those regulatory requirements.”

On a decision to open the vaccination rollout to all citizens, she said the plan was to vaccinate the most vulnerable first.

On J&J which had been found to have been contaminated, she said two million doses will not be used.

Buthelezi told MPs that there was a process in place to monitor adverse findings after the vaccination. “We have received reports of some people who have developed serious adverse effects after the vaccination and we have got a team of specialists called the national immunisation safety expert committee that is doing the work for us.”

Buthelezi said there were reports of people developing infections after getting the vaccination.

“We have been speaking to the team at Sahpra to put together a proper study on what we call breakthrough infections. Once vaccinated it does not mean that people cannot get infected but it controls the severity of the infection in terms of hospitalisation.”

Buthelezi also clarified the matter over allegations that the government turned away a donation of Sputnik vaccines. “We have never received this donation, we have checked all over and checked with the Russian Development co-operation, we are not sure where the media got this information from.”

Even if the government received the donation, Buthelezi said the department would have had to await the approval and registration of the vaccine from Sahpra.

Giving an update on Gauteng, Buthelezi confirmed that the department met premier David Makhura, MECs and councillors to discuss the issue around the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital. There will be an increases in nurses as well as oxygens to assist the province in its response. 

On walk ins, deputy health minister Joe Phaahla said the reason Limpopo was successful in managing the registration process was that it was proactive in getting people to register to get vaccinated. 

With more vaccines due to arrive, the department was anticipating an increase in the number of registrations and vaccinations.  He assured MPs that no-one will be turned away once they have registered. 

On schools, Phaahla said the matter had been discussed by the NCCC and the council was of the view  that “education is key, so educators have been prioritised so that we can keep the schools open”.

“The learners are at a lower risk because they are below the age of 18.” 

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