Netcare. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Netcare. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

Netcare has brought in a world-renowned epidemiologist to investigate the spread of Covid-19 at its St Augustine’s hospital in Durban after at least 47 staff members were infected and at least four patients died at the facility.

The company has employed Salim Karim, who is the pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and director of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in SA. He is also professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia University in the US and adjunct professor of medicine at Cornell University, New York.

St Augustine’s, which is closed to new patients, has treated 25 patients who arrived after contracting the disease, with 12 remaining at the facility.

Netcare CEO Richard Friedland said he wasn’t able to disclose the number of people who got infected there until health minister Zweli Mkhize had disclosed the information, though he confirmed that the disease had spread and infected patients there.

Netcare says the outbreak started with two patients who came to hospital in middle of March for other treatments. They did not have Covid-19 symptoms when they arrived.

The hospital was closed to new admissions on April 2 and started deep cleaning and disinfecting the next day.

Nursing union Denosa has called for it to be shut.

Friedland told Business Day that Karim has advised against moving patients as this could spread the disease if they later test positive.

Asked about damage to the Netcare brand, Friedland said the company was "not focused on that at moment. We are focused on containing the spread of disease to staff and patients."

The hospital and health department have tested almost half its 1,972 staff for the disease. It is still awaiting 308 results, with 504 coming back negative.

The group may take a financial hit from the cancellation of all non-emergency surgery countrywide to make room for Covid-19 patients, but Friedland said this was not a priority. "This is a national crisis. "

Friedland said initial precautionary measures included limiting visitors to patients and stopping outsiders using Netcare pharmacies.

It divided its hospital into three zones, with known cases kept in a quarantine area known as the red zone.

No symptoms

Unconfirmed cases awaiting test results were kept in a different zone, while those with no symptoms or likelihood of Covid-19 infection were left in a less restricted area.

Netcare will continue to test for the disease in St Augustine’s patients without symptoms in case they develop them.