ROB ROSE: Nine days for a test result: why SA’s Covid response hangs in the balance
The lamentable speed in testing for Covid-19 means SA may be fighting a losing battle to stay on top of Covid-19
It may not be for lack of trying, but the lamentable speed in testing for Covid-19 means SA may be fighting a losing battle to stay on top of Covid-19.
This weekend, scientists again warned the government that the nine-day backlog in getting back test results just isn’t good enough. “The turnaround times (for tests) remain a disaster. We have told them repeatedly to throw away the medical waste and prioritise,” Wits University’s Prof Francois Venter told News24.
“We are also told they are getting on top of their ‘backlog’. Let’s be clear, after 48 hours, it’s not a backlog, it’s medical waste,” he added.
As journalists Sarah Evans, Kyle Cowan and Qaanitah Hunter write: “Unless all tests can be returned within 12–24 hours, it is impossible to isolate positive cases in time to prevent them from spreading the virus.”
To grasp the gravity of this sentiment, consider this article from authoritative health news website Stat, which is based in Boston. Here, 11 experts in infectious disease, epidemiology and pandemic detail 14 ways in which countries can avoid screwing up their response to Covid-19, in the way that the US has.
Disturbingly for SA, the common ingredient in many of these is speed. Fixing this is all the more urgent since on Sunday, SA recorded the highest number of new Covid-19 cases on any single day: 4,302, as well as 57 new deaths.
In terms of confirmed cases, SA’s 70,038 puts it 21st in the world, ahead of European countries like Belgium (60,029), Sweden (51,614 cases) but far behind the US (2,1-million), Brazil (852,785) or Russia (528,964). However, SA does have fewer deaths than some countries with a lower number of total cases, like Sweden (4,874 deaths), Belgium (9,655) or the Netherlands (now at 6,059).
Like playing Tetris
How are doctors handling a virus that has now killed 436,000 people in six months?
In SA, we’ve had only sporadic reporting about the experience of doctors on the front line. In the US, there has been more — none better than this piece in the New York Times this weekend by Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author.
Suskind asks which “eyes” from this consequential time scholars will seek out to write history’s record of Covid-19. “A safe bet: doctors and nurses treating Covid-19,” is his answer.
These are the people who’ve engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the virus. To get the “authentic voice” of these doctors, Suskind built a digital platform for 40 of them to speak to each other about what’s happening.
His recounting of it begins with two doctors discussing the suicide of Dr Lorna Breen, head of the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian’s Allen campus in Manhattan, in late April.
The sessions between the doctors go deeper too, revealing their angst at having to decide who lives or dies and their blind hope at various stages that it’s improving.
“Doctors are stunned by how quickly, and mysteriously, the virus kills. They are troubled by the way the elderly and poor fill their emergency rooms, guilt-ridden for feeling relief at not being in otherwise high-risk categories and fearful about how the past weeks have shaken them,” he writes.
One doctor recounts how she was dealing with a man in his late 80s, with a host of preconditions, whom his family, presumably, wanted to see put in an ICU.
“The ICU fellow was kind of hesitant, because everyone knows [he’s soon to die],” says the one doctor. The other doctor asks: “[You] just had to call it?”
She then describes the mechanics of how calling the morgue, and cleaning up the bed “held up a spot for someone else who’s been languishing in the emergency department”.
Another doctor describes how he’s been working in triage — the process of prioritising patients for treatment, based on those most likely to survive. He says: “I was just sitting at my computer trying to figure out who goes where. It feels more like Tetris.”
It’s a long read, but a frightening one, in light of the fact that SA is building towards the peak in July and August. Already, there are disturbing signs about what our doctors and nurses may face.
A brutal irony
Finally, you know the consequences of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and what the murder symbolises, but do you know who he was?
The Economist, which has an esteemed history of writing poignant and distinctive warts-and-all obituaries, has applied its pen to chronicling Floyd’s life.
It’s a fascinating read, describing how Floyd, who was already six foot at the age of 12, was recruited by the South Florida State College to play basketball and was on the football team of the Jack Yates High School in Texas that made the state final in 1992.
It also chronicles how he was sentenced to five years in jail for his role in a house robbery in 2007, after which he emerged determined to change his life. “He became active in his church, Resurrection Houston, organising not only barbecues and basketball games, but Bible studies and open air baptisms,” it says.
The irony, in the end, is that the officer who squashed out his life was the same man who was his predecessor as a bouncer at the door of the El Nuevo Rodeo Club night club in Minneapolis, a man “with jittery eyes who would reach for the pepper spray as soon as a fight broke out and fire it over everyone”. Read it here.
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