GPs and other primary healthcare providers in South Africa's commercial metropolis Johannesburg said they are experiencing a surge of Covid-19 cases linked to the new omicron variant.
“[We're] snowed under. It has exploded around here,” Dr Sharony Cohen, who runs a private practice in the affluent Parktown North suburb, told The Telegraph.
“It is very early days, we will have to wait and see in the next week or two. This appears to be very, very infectious, we are inundated with patients.”
“We don’t know what is happening going forward, so this is so stressful – the sheer number,” said Dr Cohen.
Hatzollah, a private ambulance service run by members of the city's Jewish community, has kept meticulous records of Covid-19 infections since the pandemic began.
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They say there has been a staggering surge of infections in the last two and half weeks. They have gone from receiving no calls about Covid-19 to more than 60 a day.
Based on the current rate of increase, the new omicron wave will soon eclipse South Africa's summer delta variant wave in infection numbers, said a healthcare worker at Hatzollah.
All the healthcare workers interviewed by this newspaper said that so far, the cases they were seeing were “mild” and that most of their patients were resting at home with equipment to check their oxygen levels.
Doctors stressed that the mild omicron cases are primarily being found in upper and middle-class neighbourhoods where patients were far more likely to be vaccinated and have access to private healthcare.
“The only patients we have had who are not vaccinated are children. So far, everyone seems to be ok,” said Dr Cohen.
Experts warned that more severe cases could be going unreported in poorer neighbourhoods and that it was far too early to tell if the variant was more dangerous than delta.
They said a far grimmer picture could emerge when the new highly mutated variant hits less vaccinated populations.
“Most of the cases… that we know about happened among those who were either vaccinated or had …[a] prior infection or were young. So most had some immune protection, said Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“[The variant] seems to spread very easily. The problem is that even if many people are protected against a severe form of the disease, it will reach people who are not protected, who are not vaccinated, or people whose protection has waned over time.”
Dr Lessels said that omicron would be “even worse” when it spread across Africa, where vaccination rates are lower.
Scientists say that omicron is behind the explosion of cases in Southern Africa's Gauteng Province, which is home to both Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.
Over the last two weeks, Covid-19 hospitalisations have more than quadrupled in Gauteng albeit from a low base, according to data from South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Tshwane, the northern part of Gauteng province, which includes Pretoria, is the epicentre of the omicron spread. Authorities say that almost 90 per cent of Covid-19 hospitalised patients there are unvaccinated.
The new variant, named omicron last week, was first discovered in Botswana, but cases have now been detected across the world.
Much to the ire of South Africans who say their country is being punished for good science and transparency, the UK, US, and the EU have all restricted travel from southern Africa amid concern over the new variant.
South African demographics are different from the UK. Only about six per cent of the population are over the age of 65, meaning that older individuals who are more vulnerable to the virus may take some time to present severe symptoms.
Africa’s most industrialised nation has been hit harder by the pandemic than any other country on the continent. The country of 60m people has recorded just under 90,000 Covid-19 deaths since the pandemic began.
However, excess deaths – the number of deaths above the average when compared to pre-pandemic years – is thought to be far higher. The South African Medical Research Council says there have been more than 270,000 excess deaths in the country, almost twice the UK’s figure.
About 14.3m people – or 35 per cent of adults – in South Africa are now fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
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