'Babies, toddlers and pregnant women in hospital on oxygen' due to Covid-19 - health minister

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Health Minister Joe Phaahla speaking at the Durban International Convention Centre.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla speaking at the Durban International Convention Centre.
  • Health Minister Joe Phaahla has warned that the Omicron variant of Covid-19 was spreading rapidly among children, some as young as two years old.
  • He said Gauteng was still the biggest concern, but that the new variant was quickly spreading to all provinces.
  • Phaahla said vaccination was still vital because it prevented severe illness.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla has warned that hospitalisations due to Covid-19 infection are picking up, with the department seeing an increase in the number of babies, toddlers and pregnant women in hospital on oxygen.

Phaahla spoke at the Durban International Convention Centre, where he addressed the opening ceremony of the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (Icasa) on Monday night.

Expressing concern, Phaahla said while most cases in Gauteng were not severe, "hospitalisations are picking up".

"We are aware of one death of a 15-year-old boy whose condition rapidly deteriorated after admission. We are seeing babies, toddlers and pregnant women in hospital on oxygen. The message is clear, we need to be more vigilant than ever," the minister warned.

Phaahla said Gauteng in particular, which was first to enter the fourth wave, had to ensure that people tried to prevent transmission through non-pharmaceutical interventions, including wearing a mask, regular handwashing, social distancing, and avoiding huge gatherings, "especially where there is no sufficient ventilation".

READ | Covid-19: Early analysis suggests Omicron variant spreading twice as fast as Delta

He said the National Institute for Communicable Disease (NICD) warned that the variant was spreading rapidly "as it is a highly transmissible variant".

"It has already spread across large parts of the country."

Phaahla said they were also receiving details from provincial health departments on hospital readiness "to prepare for the inevitable hospitalisations that will accompany this fourth wave".

Since the Omicron variant was announced to the public on 25 November, cases have increased at a rapid rate, Phaahla said. On 25 November, the number of new cases reported by the NICD was 2 465, the following day, it was 2 828, and by Saturday, 27 November, South Africa was up to 3 220 cases.

By 1 December, new daily cases were at 8 561, and on 2 December 11 535.

Phaahla said Gauteng still dominated the infections, with a test positivity rate of 34%.

He added:

But all provinces are showing significant growth in cases now. All provinces now have districts with test positivity rates above 5%, with the metros showing the greatest test positivity.

He urged South Africans to understand that the Omicron variant was highly transmissible and that it "spreads fast".

"Even if there are reports of apparently milder illness this time, we are still seeing very sick people in hospital, and the virus definitely can kill. We continue to recommend that everyone must vaccinate. We know that the vaccines are still protecting us against severe illness."

Targeting children

He said the new variant of concern, Omicron, appears to be targeting young children, some as young as two years old.

"In the current new Omicron wave that is building, we are seeing very young children, toddlers as young as two years old, and a lot of adolescents and young adults getting sick," the minister said.

He said the spread among younger South Africans could be because they were the least immunised.

"This (their infections) may be that this is the more sociable and mobile portion of the population, and it may be that it is the least well immunised portion of the population."

However, he said it could also be that the older segment of the population was yet to be infected by the younger.

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