PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA – Overcast, drizzly skies matched the overcast mood at Tshwane University of Technology, a hotspot for the latest rise in COVID-19 cases in South Africa, seemingly fueled propelled by the new omicron variant is leading countries around the world to impose new restrictions.
After some students tested positive, the university postponed some exams and officials in the larger metropolitan area of Tshwane, including the capital, Pretoria, are stepping up vaccinations, especially especially in young people who are slow to receive injections.
At TUT, as the university was known, very few students wanted to talk about the already offensive new variant. Many have been unvaccinated – just 22% of 18- to 34-year-olds in South Africa – and some seem to be rethinking that, though notably the university’s vaccination center School is closed for the weekend.
Manqoba Zitha, a student who was shot, said he would push his classmates to do the same.
“I’m trying to encourage them so they can get vaccinated, so they can stay away from the coronavirus because it’s there, it’s killing people, and now the numbers are going up,” Zitha said. “Now when we’re watching TV, we can see that people are getting coronavirus. So they have to get vaccinated!”
Almost two years after the pandemic, the world is racing to contain the latest variant, which was first identified in southern Africa but emerged globally. Countries are imposing restrictions or bans on visitors from several countries – much to the dismay of the South African government – and reimposed measures like the mask-wearing order that some hope hope has become a thing of the past.
The World Health Organization has named the new version of the virus “omicron” and classifies it as a highly transmissible variant of concern, although its true risks are still not understood. clear. Early evidence suggests it increases the risk that people already infected with COVID-19 may get the disease again, the WHO said. It can take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.
Still, some experts hope that vaccines will be at least somewhat effective in preventing serious illness and death – and continue to encourage people to get vaccinated.
Gauteng province – home to Pretoria and South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg – is at the center of the new surge. So far, cases appear to be mild, doctors say, and hospitalizations have not spiked.
However, experts warn that an early wave of infections has occurred in young people and the situation could become more serious if the new wave of infections affects older, unvaccinated South Africans. Overall, 41% of people 18 and older are vaccinated – but young people have been particularly slow moving forward.
At least three South African universities – the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the Free State University in Bloemfontein – have announced that it is mandatory to vaccinate students next year. Some experts say further measures will be needed.
“I think the decision that South Africa is going to have to make is probably around making vaccinations mandatory,” said Mosa Moshabela, a professor of public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.
Demand for the vaccine has been so sluggish that the government recently requested slower deliveries to allow time to use up the current 19 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
A new mutation had long been anticipated and even a new variant, but the speed with which the omicron struck came as a “shock” to South African medical professionals.
Although the number of confirmed cases is still relatively low, they have been growing at a high rate. The new spike started after some student parties in Pretoria. The number quickly skyrocketed from a few hundred cases a day to thousands. South Africa announced 3,220 new cases on Saturday, of which 82% were in Gauteng, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. This is still far below the peak of the previous wave, when more than 25,000 were confirmed in a single day.
Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, says up to 90% of new cases in Gauteng province are caused by omicrons.
“We were expecting that we might see a new variant or another that would gain momentum in the fourth wave… but we didn’t really expect to see a variant with multiple varieties. And that has the potential to become contagious, and Moshabela, an expert from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said. “This was really the shock we had.”
Although cases are now concentrated in Pretoria and Johannesburg, tests showed omicrons were present in all nine provinces of South Africa.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa met with health officials over the weekend and is expected to address the nation on Sunday night about the rising cases.
Back at TUT, Nhrinhla Africa Maphosa, a 25-year-old management student, is still trying to figure out the news and its implications for his studies.
“Just last week, when they checked the stats, they realized that a lot of students had been impacted by COVID-19 at the main campus,” said Maphosa. “We’re not too sure about the statistics. …But what we can say is a high level or percentage of students who have had COVID-19.”