Boozy out­ings fuel ‘sec­ond-wave’ fears

Sunday Times - - Front Page - By TANYA FAR­BER, SUTHENTIRA GOVENDER and PHILANI NOMBEMBE

● Epi­demi­ol­o­gists are rais­ing a red flag over a Covid-19 resur­gence in SA, while law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties ready them­selves to in­ten­sify spot checks and clamp down on ir­re­spon­si­ble be­hav­iour at so­cial gath­er­ings.

Ex­perts have warned that “re­laxed be­hav­iour”, pan­demic fa­tigue and “su­per­spread­ing” events — like the re­cent one at a night­club in Cape Town — are putting the coun­try back in peril.

Pro­fes­sor Wolf­gang Preiser, a vi­rol­o­gist at Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity, told the Sun­day Times that “the warn­ing signs” of an up­surge are “def­i­nitely there — as ref­er­enced by the mas­sive out­break linked to the Clare­mont [Cape Town] venue”.

Eighty-nine peo­ple, 38 of them ma­tric­u­lants about to write ex­ams, have tested pos­i­tive af­ter vis­it­ing the Tin Roof night­club, now trad­ing as a bar, on the first week­end of Oc­to­ber. It was a su­per­spreader event wait­ing to hap­pen and Jamie Si­mon­son, who lives next door, saw it un­fold.

“I heard the club bump­ing and I saw ev­ery­one packed in and I said: ‘I know in two weeks we are go­ing to see [Covid-19] cases rise in Clare­mont be­cause there is ab­so­lutely no dis­tanc­ing go­ing on’,” Si­mon­son said.

Preiser said that once peo­ple “start dis­re­gard­ing the ba­sic rules, life be­comes risky, as we have al­ready seen in so many other coun­tries”.

In a state­ment on Fri­day by the of­fice of the chief rabbi and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, pri­vate so­cial gath­er­ings were cited as pos­si­bly be­ing re­spon­si­ble for a “sig­nif­i­cant in­crease” of 31 new in­fec­tions in the past few days af­fect­ing the Jo­han­nes­burg Jewish com­mu­nity.

Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa said on Thurs­day that SA is en­ter­ing a phase that “re­quires high vig­i­lance”, while ex­perts warn that De­cem­ber fes­tiv­i­ties could fuel a sec­ond wave of in­fec­tions.

While com­mu­nity trans­mis­sion in ev­ery

day life is the main cause, su­per­spread­ing events speed up the process.

“Dur­ing strict lock­down lev­els there was lit­tle chance of su­per­spread­ing events. Whether fu­ner­als, wed­dings or Trumpian

pol­i­tick­ing, if large num­bers of peo­ple come to­gether and do not ob­serve pre­cau­tions, chances are one or more will be in­fec­tious and that in­fec­tion can then spread,” said Preiser. “It is a ques­tion of chance — the more peo­ple, the more likely some­one will be in­fected”.

Cer­tain business mod­els “are not ten­able”, he added, and “of­fer­ing cheap al­co­holic drinks to at­tract scores of young peo­ple is ask­ing for trou­ble”.

Preiser said one su­per­spread­ing event “can be fol­lowed up, two will be chal­leng­ing, and if there are toomany, con­tact trac­ing be­comes im­pos­si­ble and we get a run­away sit­u­a­tion.”

Law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties said that as more com­plaints of ir­re­spon­si­ble be­hav­iour at pubs, tav­erns and restau­rants come in, spot checks and pa­trols would be in­ten­si­fied.

Na­tional po­lice spokesper­son Brig Vish Naidoo said: “What we are find­ing is that in­di­vid­u­als are be­hav­ing ir­re­spon­si­bly. They go into these es­tab­lish­ments with masks and then re­move them in­side.

“We are con­tacted by the pub­lic … about

this type of be­hav­iour. When we get there we find peo­ple with­out masks, but when we look at CCTV footage they en­ter the premises with them on.

“It is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the own­ers and man­agers to en­sure their cus­tomers have their masks on at all times, oth­er­wise they will face pros­e­cu­tion. We are go­ing to be more vig­i­lant, we are go­ing to con­duct more inspection­s. Our mem­bers will be mak­ing ran­dom vis­its to these es­tab­lish­ments.”

Jo­han­nes­burg metro po­lice de­part­ment spokesman Wayne Min­naar said: “There are still clubs and pubs who take chances and are stay­ing open beyond mid­night. Sand­ton is prob­lem­atic. Peo­ple, af­ter they have had a few drinks, take off their masks. We have been warn­ing own­ers.”

Wits Uni­ver­sity vac­ci­nol­ogy pro­fes­sor Shabir Madhi said there has been an uptick in in­fec­tions in the past two weeks with about 1,200 new cases a day. Fri­day saw 2,019 cases re­ported in 24 hours.

“About 15% of peo­ple are re­spon­si­ble for about 80% of all di­rect in­fec­tions,” he said. “It might be that these in­di­vid­u­als who are re­spon­si­ble for the ma­jor­ity of cases so­cialise more and have a much higher vi­ral load.”

Madhi said the prob­lem with su­per­spreader events was that many peo­ple get in­fected in a short time, plac­ing “an ex­cess de­mand on health-care fa­cil­i­ties”.

Pro­fes­sor Salim Ab­dool Karim, co-chair of the min­is­te­rial ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee on Covid-19, is “deeply con­cerned” as many be­lieved “it’s party time”. “We are lay­ing the con­di­tions for a sec­ond wave,” he said.

Three key mark­er­swould de­ter­mine if SA was likely to face a sec­ond wave, he said.

“The first is the in­crease in the num­ber of cases. There are two ways to look at that. You can look at how the seven-day av­er­age is chang­ing and what is the per­cent­age in­crease in the ac­tive cases. They both fun­da­men­tally re­quire an in­crease in the cases. That is a con­sis­tent trend.

“The sec­ond in­di­ca­tor is the pro­por­tion of tests that are pos­i­tive. The third in­di­ca­tor is hos­pi­tal ad­mis­sions.”

He said a con­sis­tent change across these three in­di­ca­tors could point to a sec­ond wave. He said fig­ures were be­ing mon­i­tored daily.

An anal­y­sis of the av­er­age num­ber of weekly in­fec­tions by the Sun­day Times put them at 33,464 in Au­gust, af­ter SA passed the peak. In Septem­ber this was down to 11,824 but in the first half of Oc­to­ber the fig­ure was 11,923, show­ing an up­ward tra­jec­tory.

Pro­fes­sor So­raya See­dat, head of psy­chi­a­try at Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity, said that as the hol­i­days ap­proached the temp­ta­tion would be greater to ig­nore pub­lic health ad­vice and en­gage in ac­tiv­i­ties that helped to dis­tract from the cri­sis.

“It does be­come eas­ier, as the work and aca­demic year winds down, for peo­ple to get into a trap of think­ing that if they haven’t be­come in­fected with Covid-19 they will not get sick dur­ing the hol­i­days and that go­ing out and try­ing to feel ‘nor­mal’ again is what they need.

“This runs the very real risk of un­do­ing the progress that we have made with phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing, mask­ing and per­sonal hy­giene. ‘Cau­tion fa­tigue’ is a sure con­trib­u­tor to a sec­ond surge.”

Pic­ture: Jamie Si­mon­son

Pa­trons queue out­side the Tin Roof club in Clare­mont, Cape Town, just days be­fore a su­per­spread­ing event un­folded there.

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