Melanie Verwoerd | Testing for coronavirus: different realities

Travellers in protective masks at Cape Town International Airport. (Gallo Images, Brenton Geach)
Travellers in protective masks at Cape Town International Airport. (Gallo Images, Brenton Geach)

I understand that we are at the beginning of this new reality - also for medical personnel, but we have to quickly get this right, because as the WHO said yesterday to governments: "You have to test, test and test," writes Melanie Verwoerd

Over the past two days, two family members as well as a number of friends were tested for the coronavirus in the Western Cape.

All had either travelled from abroad and were having symptoms or had developed symptoms after contact with someone who had travelled from abroad.

Their experiences differed vastly.

Firstly, let me say how much admiration I have for the medical personnel who work on the front line of this epidemic.

They are working under enormous pressure - pressure that will only escalate as time goes by.

These people will be the heroes of this epidemic not only in South Africa, but globally.

One of my family members were tested at a Mediclinic facility in Cape Town after a referral from her GP.

There was a tent outside in the parking lot in order not to risk any infection within the hospital. (Long may the summer last!)

The nurses and doctors were exhausted, but extremely friendly and the system worked. The only problem was that it took between 30 and 45 minutes to test one person.

Full medical histories were taken.

The forms were cumbersome and time consuming.

Clearly as the epidemic progresses this will not work and will have to change.

Despite having to wait for about two hours after the scheduled appointment time, the experience was overall very positive.

By contrast two friends went to Tygerberg Hospital at the same time.

Both had symptoms.

One, who had travelled from America less than two weeks ago, had been sick for days with a fever, cough and flu symptoms. He was scheduled to fly back to the US on Monday.

Because he was still feeling sick, he wanted to get tested and possibly delay his departure.

The other friend has a very serious lung condition and had also developed a bad cough and flu like symptoms after being exposed to travellers from high risk countries.

At Tygerberg they experienced a more chaotic system.

After confusion and a long wait in queues they finally saw a doctor.

He declined to test either of them. In fact, he almost immediately signed a form clearing the American friend to fly.

Now I’m no medic, but that seems very unwise.

The friend with the lung condition was equally declined for testing by the same doctor - on the basis that she had not been in direct contact with someone who had already tested positive (a number of contacts had been tested and were waiting for the results).

He further explained that about 100 people had been tested by then in the Western Cape, among who, only one had tested positive at Christiaan Barnard Hospital.

This is clearly untrue, since a number of people have tested positive at other facilities.

Another woman from the United Kingdom who had recently entered South Africa had a very bad cough and was also sent away.

I understand that we have to alleviate the pressure on the laboratories and facilities.

However, the system seems to be breaking down, particularly when it comes to foreigners who are here from high risk countries.

The American friend has now landed home in the US after a long haul flight and the other friend was tested privately this morning on the insistence of her specialist.

Another thing that seems very concerning is the difference in infection control protocols followed at the two facilities.

The staff at Mediclinic were meticulously changing gloves and protective gear after every patient.

Patients were immediately issued with masks and told to wear them.

They were told to hold on to the pens that they used to fill in forms and not hand them back.

There were ample hand sanitisers and wipes.

By contrast (according to my friends), whilst they were also given masks, staff at Tygerberg hospital tested fevers and felt different people’s glands without changing gloves.

If this is indeed the case (and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy) this is a disaster waiting to happen.

Especially since the majority of people will have to be tested at public health facilities like Tygerberg hospital.

I understand that we are at the beginning of this new reality - also for medical personnel, but we have to quickly get this right, because as the WHO said yesterday to governments: "You have to test, test and test."

On the positive front, I think we can all agree that the President was very impressive on Sunday night.

He looked and sounded calm and in control.

This epidemic could be the defining moment of his presidency.

If the government handles this well, it will secure his place in history as one of our great presidents.

However, if they bungle this, he will be punished by voters and those in the ANC baying for his blood will start circling quickly.

We will undoubtedly still talk about the coronavirus in the weeks to come.

In the meantime: May you all stay safe.

Wash your hands frequently, and do not touch your face.

Keep your distance and do not shake hands with anyone, take vitamins to strengthen your immune system, self-isolate immediately if you experience the symptoms we have all read about, and call your doctor to arrange testing.

To the medical personnel: We salute you!

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland



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