‘It's like working in a war zone’ – Healthcare workers take strain in third wave

Experts say infections are being driven by the more transmissible and now dominant Delta variant, stretching resources to the limit. Eyewitness News spoke to some frontliners taking strain during this crisis.

A healthcare worker at the Nasrec Field Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News

CAPE TOWN - As the coronavirus third wave tightens its grip on the country, healthcare workers are again doing their jobs under extraordinary stress, with hospital beds quickly filling up amid rising infections.

Gauteng – which is currently the epicentre in South Africa and which accounts for more than 50% of new daily cases – is reeling under pressure, with more than 8,800 patients hospitalised in both public and private facilities.

Experts say infections are being driven by the more transmissible and now dominant Delta variant, stretching resources to the limit.


Eyewitness News spoke to some frontliners taking strain during this crisis.

A nurse who works at a public hospital in Gauteng explained the agonising reality of treating the critically ill during this brutal third wave of coronavirus infections.

"It's dangerous. It's like working in a war zone. It's like a world war, where you know when you go there you might come back, you might not come back."

Johannesburg doctor Daniel Israel said the situation was equally scary in the private sector, where he was seeing more COVID-19 positive patients compared to the first two waves.

“In my particular practice, perhaps at the height of the second wave, we were seeing perhaps five or six positive patients a day. In this wave we're seeing 15 to 20, so there's a three- to four-fold increase given the fact that we're in Gauteng and the hotspot."


While Gauteng health officials are monitoring COVID-19 hospitalisations in the province to decide whether to make more bed space available, second-year medical intern at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, Doctor Naeem Vallee, said being able to work under immense pressure was vital to coping with the surge in patient numbers.

"It’s having to be amenable and on your feet all the time. Having to be extremely flexible in the way you approach patient management and changes to patient regimens and investigations. It's being thorough in your workups so that you don't miss anything or don't allow your patients to slip through the cracks or get missed," said Vallee.

While 14,465 people had succumbed to the disease in the province, healthcare workers stressed the importance of COVID-19 vaccines and urged people to join the queue for a jab.


And while some doctors described how they were tackling the third wave with more ease and less anxiety because they had been vaccinated, they said the pain of losing patients hit just as hard as the first time.

Eyewitness News spoke to the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s head of internal medicine, Professor Nombulelo Magula just a day after she lost a patient to COVID-19 at Clairwood Hospital.

"You're treating patients and you're giving all you have, and you lose these patients. It's very hard," said Magula.

"It’s emotionally taxing and unfortunately this problem of emotional trauma and mental fatigue is something that nobody can see... where you have pictures in your mind of the patient that you tried to help get through and you've lost."

Palliative care doctor at Groote Schuur Hospital, Abhaya Karki, said at least frontline workers were vaccinated as they battled the third wave of COVID-19 infections, but it was discouraging to see more younger people dying this time around

“It’s disheartening and sad to see young patients dying as well. When I say young, these are the patients who are around probably the late thirties, early forties. Just the other day we lost a mother of three who was in her mid-forties, you know, so these are the patients who are yet to be vaccinated.”

And they also had to make tough decisions as they faced patients who didn’t qualify for mechanical ventilation or high-flow nasal oxygen therapy because they were too sick to benefit from these interventions.

“We need to counsel their families as well. The fact is most of our patients who are referred to us die, because that is why they were referred. They were very serious and in terms of therapy, there would be no escalation,” said Karki.

For these usually upbeat and positive doctors, work has become a constant struggle, but they said nothing brought them more joy than getting up in the morning to go back to care for their patients.

They urged South Africans to adhere to safety measures geared at curbing further spread of the coronavirus.

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