A laboratory worker in Cape Town, May 11 2020, May 11 2020. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
A laboratory worker in Cape Town, May 11 2020, May 11 2020. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

The Western Cape health department is changing its Covid-19 testing strategy, and will now prioritise high-risk groups such as health-care workers and people in old age homes,  it emerged on Wednesday.

The move to ration testing follows growing delays at the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) which has been unable to keep up with demand as SA’s Covid-19 epidemic deepens.

The Western Cape, which has more than 60% of SA’s reported cases, sounded the alarm over NHLS delays a fortnight ago, saying at the time that long turnaround times were hampering its capacity to manage critically ill patients.

It also follows a push by two of the top scientists advising the government on Covid-19 to scrap community screening and testing and conserve tests and laboratory resources for key groups to ensure maximum impact.

The province is seeing sustained community transmission of Covid-19, and has reported more than 11,000 cases, and 211 deaths.

Tests needed to be used “sparingly and appropriately”, said Western Cape head of health Keith Cloete.

The department had worked with the NHLS to ensure health-care workers now received test results within 24 hours, and hospitalised patients within 3 days. Other groups of people still had to wait on average seven to eight days for their results, but some had waited as long as 12, he said.

Cloete said Western Cape had more reported cases than other provinces at this stage, because its epidemic had begun earlier. It was focusing its efforts on clusters of disease, or “hotspots” in areas such as Du Noon, Hout Bay and Ceres.

His comments about SA’s epidemic taking off earlier than other provinces echo those of UCT’s Sheetal Sital, one of the experts on the modelling consortium advising the government.

In a briefing hosted by health minister Zweli Mkhize on Tuesday evening she said the epidemic had seeded in different parts of the country at different times, and over time the divergence in the trajectory of their epidemics would lessen.

Cloete said the Western Cape health department has submitted a business plan to the provincial Treasury ahead of the June adjustment budget, requesting a R2.5bn budget for combating Covid-19. It is not yet clear how much of this will be funded by a share of the additional R20bn in health financing previously announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, and how much will come from reprioritising funds within the provincial budget.

Cloete said the Western Cape was on track with its plans to prepare five field hospitals with a combined capacity of 1,428 extra beds. The first to open will be the 850-bed field hospital in the Cape Town International Convention Centre, which lies in the city centre. Other field hospitals are being prepared in Brackenfell, Khayelitsha, the Cape Winelands and at Tygerberg Hospital.

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