Withdrawal of new Covid-19 guidelines 'extremely disappointing', says Rural Doctors Association

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  • The health department on Tuesday recalled its circular on revised contact tracing, quarantine and isolation protocols.
  • The Rural Doctors Association of Southern Africa says the decision has put huge strain on the rural healthcare sector.
  • It called on the department to reverse the decision and reinstate the new guidelines.

The Rural Doctors Association of Southern Africa (Rudasa) has expressed "extreme disappointment" in the Department of Health's withdrawal of its circular on contact tracing, quarantine and self-isolation protocols.

On Tuesday evening, the department issued a statement noting that it had been inundated with queries and comments since the release of the circular on 23 December.

While it did not explain why that decision had been made, it said a new version of the rules would be issued "once all additional inputs and comments have been considered".

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All earlier existing regulations concerning contact tracing, quarantine and isolation are still applicable. This means that a person who tests positive for Covid-19 must go into self-isolation. Additionally, anyone they had been in contact with should be contacted, and urged to get tested.

Impact on rural healthcare sector

Rudasa said while the guidelines were not perfect, they were "scientifically sound" and a step in the right direction.

But the sudden reinstatement of the old protocols has put pressure on health services in the rural sector, the association said.

"The old guidelines, that had barely changed since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, do not take into account the benefits of the high levels of vaccination amongst healthcare workers, nor the high levels of Covid immunity in the South African population (estimated at 80 to 90%), and have put enormous pressure on small, understaffed hospitals and clinics in rural areas," the association said.

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On Thursday, the department said the old guidelines were "costly to essential services and society as many people stay away from their work and thus lose their income, and children miss out on their schooling".

Severe understaffing

Rudasa said many healthcare workers have been infected with Covid-19, but their symptoms have been mostly mild.

"By far the biggest strain for us during this fourth wave has been trying to keep services going when healthcare workers have had to self-isolate, or needed to quarantine after close contact with a Covid case, usually a colleague," Rudasa said.

It pointed to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) decision to reduce the isolation period and allow asymptomatic healthcare workers to return to work after five days, on the strict condition that they wear an N95 mask.

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"Yet in South Africa we are insisting that vaccinated, uninfected healthcare workers who are Covid contacts quarantine for a full 10 days," Rudasa said.

This has caused the unnecessary closure of rural clinics and severe understaffing at rural hospitals during the busy festive period. The association has called on the department to reverse the retraction immediately.

"Strong and clear leadership is required to protect our healthcare service delivery. Any further delay for the purposes of 'consultation' will be measured in lives lost as pregnant mothers, malnourished babies and victims of violence are left unattended in rural hospitals all over the country, whilst healthy healthcare workers are forced to quarantine at home," it added.

- Additional reporting by Business Insider SA

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