Will superspreader events mean tougher restrictions?

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The festive season is around the corner. To enjoy it, you’ll have to follow the rules.
The festive season is around the corner. To enjoy it, you’ll have to follow the rules.
Lorado/Getty Images

South Africa has been on lockdown level one for a few weeks now and everyone seems to be adjusting to the new normal.

Level one has meant easing of a number of restrictions, including on social gatherings. Slowly but surely, get-togethers have become a thing again. Families and friends are seeing each other and, on a bigger scale, event organisers are kicking back into action again.

This is to be expected, but it does raise the question of what it’s going to mean for the virus. And, more specifically, us.

‘Tis the season to be jolly

December is just around the corner. And with it comes a lot of gatherings.

The approaching holiday season means family gatherings, student year-end celebrations, and a host of organised big events and festivals.

Let’s be honest, we could all do with a bit of fun after this extraordinary year.

But fun also comes with danger – the virus is still out there and it’s important we continue to be responsible and protect ourselves and others.

What’s going on in Europe right now – soaring numbers of new infection cases and harsh lockdowns – should provide a bit of motivation.

And in case we needed a local reminder, our very own Health Minister Zweli Mhkize has just announced he wants to extend his powers to restrict us.

Read more | US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci calls White House event a coronavirus ‘superspreader’

What are superspreader events?

Superspreader events are places where the virus has spread to a large number of people and lead to a cluster of infections.

A recent example – a bunch of Cape Town teenagers who happily spread the virus around when they hit local nightclub, Tin Roof, in the search of a night out and cheap booze. Around 60 cases were linked to that party.

“This is not the only case of a superspreader event, and with the festive reason on our doorstep there will be many more,” says Professor Charles Parry from the South African Medical Research Council. “This will result in a hike of infections and put many lives at risk.”

How infections spread

Indoor events are particularly problematic.

"The big concern is that having lots of people jammed indoors, particularly when not wearing face coverings, is sort of a recipe for transmission of SARS-CoV-2," Dr Dean Winslow of Stanford University Medical Center says.

"One of the things that I think is really well appreciated now is that things like speaking and singing will generate very small particle aerosols . . . In an indoor environment, where you have less air circulation than outdoors, those particles can remain suspended in the air for several hours or so."

The problem is that people may not know they are infected, and they can spread the virus before they experience any symptoms – if they develop them at all.

“The longer a group stays in contact, the greater the likelihood that the virus will spread among them,” says Syra Madad, a special pathogens expert at NYC Health. “Exactly how much time someone needs to pick it up remains unknown.”

But one thing is becoming increasingly likely, according to the Western Cape health department.

“There is one clear pattern in clusters that we have detected – the people involved didn’t behave in a way that was needed to keep themselves and others safe, by either not wearing their masks properly or at all, or by attending large gatherings where distancing and ventilation is difficult or even impossible,” it says.

Read more | Study finds coronavirus superspreader infected more than 20 people on one bus

Be responsible and stay safe

If you do attend a social gathering, there are a few rules – and you should know them by now.

Ensure you always maintain physical distancing – stay at least one metre away from somebody who is coughing or sneezing.

Continue to frequently wash your hands.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as your hands touch many surfaces and could potentially transfer the virus.

Practise respiratory hygiene – always cover your mouth with a bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Remember to dispose of the tissue immediately after use.

Most importantly wear your masks, as not wearing them has been identified as the biggest contributor to the virus being spread at social events.

Stick to outdoor events rather than indoors – this should be easier now summer is almost here.

And remember – it’s up to all of us, regardless of our age, to play our part in keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe. Be responsible – think of others.

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