President Cyril Ramaphosa (right) and health minister Zweli Mkhize address a media briefing at OR Tambo International airport on coronavirus containment procedures, March 10 2020. Picture: PRESIDENCYZA/Twitter
President Cyril Ramaphosa (right) and health minister Zweli Mkhize address a media briefing at OR Tambo International airport on coronavirus containment procedures, March 10 2020. Picture: PRESIDENCYZA/Twitter

Six people who travelled to Europe independently of SA’s first group of confirmed coronavirus cases have now tested positive for the virus, taking the total number recorded in SA to 13, health minister Zweli Mkhize announced on Wednesday.

Four of the cases are in Gauteng, one in KwaZulu-Natal, and one in the Western Cape.

"The identification of additional imported cases of Covid-19 is not unexpected and is likely related to increasing numbers of cases in other parts of the world, leading to increased importation risk," said the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

Europe is confronting a rapidly escalating outbreak, which has seen Italy place its 60-million citizens under lockdown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warn that up to 70% of her country’s citizens are likely to get infected with the virus, which causes a disease known as Covid-19. Italy’s cases topped 10,100 on Wednesday, the highest number recorded outside China, where the epidemic began in late December.

The virus has raced around the world, battering financial markets and disrupting global supply chains. By Wednesday, the virus had sickened more than 121,000 people and killed about 4,360 in more than 118 countries and territories, including 11 African nations, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker.

SA’s first seven coronavirus cases were among a party of 10 who visited an Italian ski resort at the end of February. One of the members of the group returned to London, and the remaining two have tested negative, according to the NICD.

The speed with which the highly contagious disease has spread around the world has rattled governments and triggered panic buying, including a run on hand sanitiser in SA. While most cases are mild and self-limiting, about 15% of patients require hospital admission, and the risk of complications and death rises sharply among the elderly and in people with underlying health conditions.

Mkhize said tracer teams were tracking down contacts of all the new cases.

The Gauteng patients are a 33-year-old woman who travelled to Italy and returned to SA on March 1; a couple — a 34-year-old man and a 33-year-old woman — who travelled together to Germany and returned on March 9; and a 57-year-old man who travelled to Austria and Italy and returned to SA on March 9.

The KwaZulu-Natal patient is a 40-year-old man who travelled to Portugal and returned on March 7, while the Western Cape patient is a 36-year-old man who travelled to multiple countries, including Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Turkey, returning to SA on March 9.

Some of the patients were in hospital but those who were asymptomatic were self-isolating at home, said the minister.

Western Cape premier Alan Winde said the provincial government is reviewing the water restrictions it put in place during the recent drought, to ensure people can wash their hands at public institutions.

Many public facilities switched off their taps during the drought to save water.

The DA would be asking the health minister to consider imposing mandatory quarantine for travellers from high-risk countries, along with extra testing and screening, said health spokesperson Siviwe Gwarube.

"Countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Dubai should now be viewed as high-risk areas (in addition to China and Italy). It is up to the SA government to protect our citizens by instituting stricter measures in this regard," she said

The national hotline for coronavirus queries is 0800-029-911.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za