Furious with the Eastern Cape government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Nelson Mandela Bay, health minister Zweli Mkhize has taken charge, sending a senior director to lead the tracing, screening and testing teams in the city.
He also read the riot act to health MEC Sindiswa Gomba and her administrative staff in a meeting behind closed doors in Port Elizabeth, according to three insiders.
It followed a presentation by Dr John Black, head of the Infectious Diseases and HIV Unit at Livingstone Hospital, who painted a bleak picture of a department that is hopelessly ill-prepared to deal with the virus.
Among the challenges were that hospitals were full, there was a dire shortage of staff and an urgent need for personal protective equipment (PPE) for health staff.
Mkhize, who was in the Bay on Wednesday, said the deployment of deputy director-general of health Litha Matiwane was necessary as the province’s figures simply did not add up.
He said the number of Covid-19 deaths in the province versus the numbers listed on the national database did not match.
With the Bay’s official infection rate sitting at 167 and six deaths, Mkhize — who announced the updated figures after the meetings — believes the numbers are vastly understated.
“He said you can’t have six deaths and that infection rate. The number of infections should be in the 600s,” one insider said.
“It means that not enough testing is being done.
“Dr Mkhize immediately ordered one of the senior staff in his department to remain in the metro and take charge because there is a feeling that the doctors in the metro are on their own — the provincial health department has not been coming on board.”
Mkhize said Matiwane would be deployed to the Bay, where he would be responsible for taking charge of the district, providing leadership and pulling together a strong, coherent response to be followed by the teams undertaking tracing, screening and testing.
A metro insider said the doctors at the state hospitals often turned to the
municipality for help with supplying personal protective equipment because there appeared to be a lack of urgency from the bosses in Bhisho.
“Dr Black indicated that there are big problems in terms of vacancies in key positions.
“They don’t have staff to man those quarantine sites that are being set up.
“You can’t set something up and there is no-one to take charge of it,” the insider said.
“There is a lack of test kits — they are not testing enough.
“There is a lack of motivation from staff, who feel scared to go out themselves.
“He really painted a bleak picture that if things are not changed drastically, we are in trouble as a city.
“The fact that the hospitals are going to the municipality for PPE is telling.
“Dr Black said they are reusing gowns instead of tossing it away once they’ve worn it.
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“They are trying to wash them, but the machine to wash the gowns is broken.”
He said Black had told them about a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old who were orphaned after Covid-19 killed their parents, both under the age of 50.
“They are left with a 23-year-old who is also infected.
“This is the cold face of Covid-19 in the city,” the man said.
“A family in Walmer township — there are six to eight people in one family who are infected.”
A second insider said Gomba and her team were lambasted by Mkhize as there appeared to be no-one really in charge in the Bay.
“The hospitals are already operating at maximum without Covid-19, and with assumptions that the cases will increase it’s going to get worse.
“The minister needed to hear it and the provincial team needed to hear it.
“The province has been very slow in coming forward and doing things — there doesn’t appear to be much interest from the health administration.
“The infections figure is probably horribly understated. The minister brought it up himself,” the insider said.
A third insider said there was a feeling of unhappiness from the national officials about the number of reported cases.
The source said Mkhize had said the number was not a true reflection of the reality on the ground.
“The minister decided on the spot to send three more vans to the metro.
“The numbers in Nelson Mandela Bay will increase drastically in the next week or so because the national team believes more people are positive but we’re just not getting to them.
“Another thing that was brought up was the many vacancies here and the filling of those vacancies.
“Nelson Mandela Bay has no coherent leadership, so this has also hampered its response to Covid-19,” the insider said.
Speaking outside the South End fire station after the meeting with Gomba and Bay acting mayor Thsonono Buyeye, Mkhize said: “In my own reading of the numbers, I have a feeling we need more testing because we’ll probably find more people with Covid-19.
“The number of deaths and reporting do not match.
“It gives the impression we need to do rapid screening and testing so we can discover the full extent of the prevalence of infection in this area.”
In East London on Tuesday, Mkhize said a team of 10 epidemiologists had been called to assist the provincial government deal with the pandemic.
In Port Elizabeth on Wednesday, he said: “I believe the team that has come from the national office is going to give us a coherent strategy on how to manage the infection, the outbreak from district to district, and I believe we’ve been able to make an adequate intervention to unlock movement going forward and containment in this area.
“They need to reinforce teams that are going out to do community screening [and] reinforce testing, so there’ll be additional vans coming from [the] NHLS [National Health Laboratory Service] to this area to be able to improve capacity for testing.
“All this means the number of people who are positive may well show an increase.”
Mkhize, who was meant to visit a Volkswagen SA field hospital as well as screening and testing sites in KwaDwesi and Zwide, could not do so due to the prolonged meetings he held with health experts, municipal and provincial officials.
Before flying out, Mkhize said out of the 167 Covid-19 cases in the metro, 1,000 contacts had been traced.
He acknowledged that some of these contacts would not be able to self-isolate at home because they lived in densely populated areas.
“MEC Gomba has reached out to Nelson Mandela University, which has offered 800 beds to absorb most of these contact individuals so they can move out [of their densely populated areas].
“The approach will be those who are sick and need high care will go to hospitals.
“The second group is those who are asymptomatic and these will be moved to field hospitals,” he said.
Mkhize also said the provincial government needed to accelerate some of its programmes such as the filling of critical vacancies and hiring unemployed graduate nurses from the Lilitha nursing college.
Gomba said she and premier Oscar Mabuyane had met with the university to discuss ways in which they could work together to combat Covid-19.
NMU spokesperson Zandile Mbabela said: “We are exploring a number of initiatives as part of the university’s response to the local and provincial fight against Covid-19.