South African hospitals see non-Covid patients back for surgery

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South African hospitals are seeing a return of patients who don’t require treatment for Covid-19, though said a faster vaccination rate may be needed to ensure a fourth wave doesn’t lead to a large surge in admissions.

Operators lead by Mediclinic,  Life Healthcare and Netcare are starting to work through a lengthy backlog of elective surgeries, the companies said during a recent round of earnings reporting. 

"In South Africa, the third wave was a big and tough one and lot of elective work wasn't done," Mediclinic CEO Ronnie van der Merwe said in an interview. "That work will start flowing through and the first target is to get back to pre-pandemic levels of normality."

The country's most recent Delta-driven surge was the most severe yet, though a major slump during September gave way to weeks of minimal case numbers. Positivity is now starting to pick up again, albeit off a low base, but only about 35% of adults are fully vaccinated. Inoculations have helped to reduce admissions in countries with more advanced roll out programs. 

Another outbreak

"We are seeing a return to non-Covid activity. But how long will it last?" Netcare CEO Richard Friedland said Monday. "We live under the spectre of another outbreak or flare-up until we’re in an endemic situation, not a pandemic."

Getting as many people vaccinated as soon as possible is imperative, he said, adding that South Africa remains short of adequate safety levels.

While Mediclinic, the biggest South African-based operator, maintained its decision to withhold the dividend, both Netcare and Life Healthcare resumed payouts to shareholders in their latest reporting periods.

All three companies are pushing ahead with expansion plans. Mediclinic is opening new day clinics and has started remote patient monitoring pilot programs that have been expanded into long-term care, oncology, radiology and dialysis. Netcare is opening mental health facilities and Life Healthcare is developing its diagnostics and imaging units.

"We are seeing a strong recovery in the demand for services and a less restrictive operating environment compared to year ago," Van der Merwe said.

Still, Friedland warned that uncertainty around the path of the coronavirus remains and that the country’s vulnerable population is at risk, with transmission pools festering among non-vaccinated people.

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