South Africa sees dip in new virus cases but warns of return

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A man reacts as a health worker collects a sample for coronavirus testing during the screening and testing campaign aimed to combat the spread of COVID-19, in Eldorado Park outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa's health minister on Wednesday reported decreasing rates of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 but warned that vigilance must continue “to prevent a renewed surge.”

South Africa has 521,318 confirmed coronavirus cases, the fifth highest in the world and more than half of all reported cases in Africa, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So far South Africa has recorded 8,884 COVID-19 deaths, although studies of excess mortality rates indicate the actual toll could be higher.

The rapid spread of infections in poor, overcrowded urban centers in Cape Town, Johannesburg and other cities threatened to overwhelm public hospitals, but Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize told reporters that so far the health system has been able to cope.

“Our hospitals have been battered but we have not breached our hospital capacity,” he said. “Our wards are full and our ICU beds are full, but not to complete capacity. And the field hospitals that we constructed still have space.” There have been adequate supplies of oxygen for severely affected patients, he said.

South Africa has been the first epicenter for COVID-19 in Africa, and health experts warn that the rest of the continent may see a similar spread of the disease. South Africa has one of the continent's most advanced health care systems and other countries may not cope as well.

More than 24,000 of South Africa's health care workers have been infected by the coronavirus, with 181 deaths, the health minister said, noting that they account for 5% of the country's total infections, lower than the global average of 10%.

Responding to complaints that health workers are not getting adequate personal protective equipment, Mkhize said the government is distributing PPE and urgently investigating all complaints, especially by nurses' unions. He also reiterated President Cyril Ramaphosa's vow to aggressively root out corruption in the response to COVID-19.