Public hospitals take breather as COVID-19 infections slow but ready for surge

With experts sounding the alarm on a possible second spike in coronavirus transmissions, public hospitals are confident they’ll be better prepared.

FILE: Inside the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg in April 2020. Picture: AFP

JOHANNESBURG - Public hospitals which were overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases are enjoying some respite and are now redirecting their efforts to other priorities.

Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape were among the hardest hit provinces during the peak period, recording the most infections and deaths.

But six months since the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization and South Africa still has one of the lowest mortality rates and a recovery rate nearing 90%.

At the height of the country’s COVID-19 infections, the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg recorded an average of eight deaths per day. These days officials are reporting three.

“During the peak, we had set aside 314 beds for COVID patients and at times we were running them at an occupancy rate of up to 90%. Now the beds are 42% occupied,” CEO Gladys Bogoshi elaborated.

COVID-19 also had a profound impact on valuable human resources at the facility, with more than 700 staff members contracting the coronavirus. Eight of them lost their lives.

At the Cecilia Makiwane Hospital in East London, more than 120 health workers, including 85 nurses and doctors, tested positive for the virus.

CEO Sicelo Msi told Eyewitness News that during the peak of the outbreak, they had around 200 beds just for COVID-19 patients.

The allocation has since been slashed by more than half.

“In June the death toll went up, but from August no deaths have been reported. We have downscaled the units for COVID and are trying to go back to our normal services.”


With experts sounding the alarm on a possible second spike in coronavirus transmissions and with talk of further relaxation in lockdown regulations, public hospitals are confident they’ll be better prepared.

Field hospitals and other temporary facilities which were set up solely to deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases are being taken down for now or repurposed.

“We are 100% prepared. So in the event that we get a second peak, we will be ready,” said Msi of the East London hospital.

Most of the hospital’s wards and other units set aside for COVID-19 patients are being freed up, with staff hoping to return to some semblance of normalcy.

The already under-resourced hospital was struggling during the peak.

Meanwhile, Bogoshi said that a decline in COVID-19 treatments had also allowed the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital a breather, albeit a slight one.

“We are relieved that we were able to close some wards, but we are not resting on our laurels,” said Bogoshi.

Experts say South Africa’s earlier response plan, youthful population and a possible immunity to the virus in some communities could explain the country’s lower than predicted infections, higher recovery rate, and a lower death toll.

“The downward trajectory is probably a combination of factors. The one is related to us possibly reaching some sort of a threshold in terms of herd immunity. My estimate - and we are doing the surveillance right now – is probably 40 to 45% of the population might have been infected especially in highly densely populated areas,” said Professor Shabir Madhi, one of South Africa's top vaccinology experts.

Herd immunity refers to the build-up of immunity to a disease or virus by a large part of the population - which then provides enough resistance to curb the spread.

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