The University of Pretoria (UP) has begun to temporarily deactivate the turnstile’s biometric touchpads at the entrances to all campuses. This follows a statement released by the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, on 5 March verifying that the first case of the new Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been confirmed in South Africa.

According to a media briefing, the 38-year-old patient is from Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal and recently travelled to Italy with his wife, in a group of ten people. After returning on 1 March, he consulted a medical doctor and displayed “symptoms of fever, headache, malaise, a sore throat and a cough.” A nurse then “took swabs and delivered it to the lab”. The press release also stated that “the patient has been self-isolating since March 3”. According to Eyewitness News, the patient has two children and Cowan House Preparatory School, where one of them is enrolled, issued a notice saying it will be temporarily closed. This is despite Mkhize urging that such action is unnecessary. The school maintains that “conservative action is appropriate under these circumstances.”

Similarly, UP indicated, in a notice to students, that the decision to “temporarily disabled the biometric access systems on all campuses” is a “precautionary measure” and one that has been implemented to “minimise the possible spread of the virus”.

“…the first case of the new Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been confirmed in South Africa.”

Although biometrics are in the process of being disabled, students are still required to scan their valid student cards in order to gain access to campus. UP reiterated that they “take the issue seriously and are closely monitoring the situation while working with a team of health experts as well as the relevant authorities, including the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD)”.

Moreover, an announcement on the UP website stated that they are “taking proactive steps to help ensure that [they] have a plan of action in place to address a possible outbreak on campus.” They further stated that they have a ‘task team’ that will assist in implementing this plan, as “the safety and wellbeing of staff and students are paramount”. Students that display symptoms of a sudden onset of fever (38 degrees and above) and one or more of the following symptoms: fever, cough and difficulty breathing, are advised to isolate themselves and consult a medical doctor.

The UP Crisis line can be contacted via 012 420 2310. The NICD should be contacted on 0800 029 999, before going to a medical centre. The UP website also indicated that there are “nursing staff and experts on standby in our Student Health Services to assist with initial diagnoses”.

Although biometrics are in the process of being disabled, students are still required to scan their valid student cards in order to gain access to campus.

One of the best ways to prevent illness is to avoid exposure. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, including:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

It is important to note that, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is no specific medicine or vaccine, to date, that can cure COVID-19. Although the virus first surfaced in Wuhan China, according to NBS News there are currently cases in over 80 countries. In addition, as of 6 March, more than 102 000 people have been infected and at least 3 436 people have died. Yet, more than 56 000 people have recovered. The WHO estimates the mortality rate to be 3.4%.

Yet, it is noteworthy to acknowledge that while the mortality rate is on the lower end of the scale, COVID-19 prevents a greater risk to those with weakened immune systems. This problem is highlighted by The BBC’s South African Correspondent, Andrew Harding, in an online article that explores the vulnerability of those infected already with HIV/AIDS. The high frequency of HIV/ AIDS in South Africa could, therefore, be a determining factor in how adversely the country is affected.

Image: Kayla Thomas and Sam Mukwamu

KRISTIN DE DECKER

COVID-19 update: 9 March