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Picture: 123RF/grispb
Picture: 123RF/grispb

South Africans are witnessing the waning of the Omicron variant wave. Current statistics support this claim, with a marked decrease in the weekly average from 23,437 infections per day at its peak on December 17 to 3,219 on January 31.

There is a sense of relief, and a belief that we have put the worst of the coronavirus behind us; that we no longer need to live vigilantly. But this is not the case. Future strains may well be mild too, but considering the virus’s capricious nature it is best to remain cautiously optimistic.

Our next steps are to end the state of disaster and instead use what we have learnt in the last two years to manage future outbreaks, return society to some sort of normalcy and ensure we remain alert to future variants.

The vaccination programme is crucial to attaining these goals. Reaching widespread immunity remains a priority for the government. Likewise, getting the jab should be at the top of everyone’s list as there is still no better way to stave off the virus.

If there is one thing the vaccines have shown us during the Delta and Omicron outbreaks is that they can protect people from severe illness, and  reduce the strain on the health system. They are, indeed, miracles of modern medicine, of which everyone should take advantage.

A call to ease restrictions incrementally

President Cyril Ramaphosa adjusted level 1 lockdown rules on Monday, with amendments made to isolation periods and schooling. While this may be a welcome respite for some — particularly parents — medical experts are calling for a lengthier list of restrictions to be adjusted or halted altogether.

A week before his announcement, a panel of six SA scientists called on the president to incrementally ease restrictions. They recommended that government put an end to the state of disaster, curfews, quarantines, routine sanitising, thermometry and daily screenings. They suggested isolation be reduced to five days and that masks no longer be compulsory to wear outdoors.

From a public health perspective, these are appropriate recommendations. If we look at what other countries are doing — China is sticking to its stringent zero infection policy while the UK and Denmark are ending almost all of their restrictions — the panel is taking the wiser middle road.

SA has a fairly high immunity based on the severe Delta and Omicron waves and with almost 50% of the adult population fully vaccinated. In addition, the existing health infrastructure was able to manage the Omicron wave without becoming overwhelmed.

It is therefore reasonable to believe that we can resume living with certain caveats still in place — such as keeping our masks on in public and being mindful of physical distancing.

Vaccinations prepare us for future variants

Vaccinations remain the best way to boost one’s immunity. They prepare us against current and future variants. During the Delta and Omicron waves, results from around the country clearly showed that vaccinated people had a substantially reduced risk of contracting the virus, decreased severity of Covid-19 infections when they did, and a markedly decreased the risk of hospitalisation and death.

The highest number of deaths recorded on a single day in SA during the Omicron wave was 181, and that was on January 12 this year. Most of the severe cases and deaths in this wave were among unvaccinated people.

Furthermore, results from the Sisonke trial, which assessed the vaccine’s effectiveness in healthcare workers, showed that a combination of double vaccination and booster was more protective than just a single or double dose. These are clear indications that avoiding the jab is no longer a viable choice.

Busting myths about the vaccine

The government has done a commendable job to ease access to these vaccines. No longer do we need to make a special trip to get the jab. We can do it as we do our errands, as vaccination centres are available in numerous public spaces. The Vooma Vaxx Champs campaign continues to find ambassadors willing to educate the public, and government has partnered with major retailers to create incentives for getting the jab.

Despite these efforts, government is still butting heads against the vaccination myths that are circulating on social media. These have made some people more concerned about the vaccine’s side effects than contracting the virus. It is important to know that:

  • Manufacturers are not hiding the contents of the vaccine.
  • It cannot change DNA.
  • Microchips are not in the vaccine.
  • It does not include human or animal tissue, foetal cells, pork products or eggs.
  • It is safe for those who suffer from allergies.
  • It will not infect you with the coronavirus.
  • It does not cause infertility, impotence or erectile dysfunction.

The vaccine’s side effects, such as headaches and fatigue, are mild and typically disappear after a couple of days. Harsher, rarer, side effects have been recorded, such as anaphylactic reactions, thrombosis, myocarditis and pericarditis. However, there have been very few deaths that have been shown to be from the jab. It is much safer than driving on SA’s roads.

Viruses mutate all the time, but the vast majority of variants are not viable — they may not reproduce very well or they may not be lethal. We need a lot of viruses reproducing all the time for one highly severe variant to surface. If the virus’ circulation is reduced there is less chance that one will mutate into a deadly variant.

This is why we need more vaccinated people. It reduces the virus’s chance to mutate and spread, as it would be up against collectively strong antibodies. The coronavirus will not go away, but its severity can be diminished if we work together by getting the jab.

Experts hope the coronavirus epidemic follows the route of the flu, whereby one only needs a booster if you are vulnerable. Right now, easing restrictions and getting the vaccine are the next best steps. And only then can we move from living life cautiously to one that is cautiously optimistic. 

• Dr Johnson is public health adviser to the Solidarity Fund.

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