In omicron hotspot, grim mood as South Africa faces variant | Health

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) – The overcast, misty sky matches the somber mood at Tshwane University of Technology, a hotspot of South Africa’s latest wave of COVID-19 cases, apparently driven by the new omicron variant that dominates countries around the world to impose new restrictions.

After several students tested positive, the university postponed some exams, and authorities in the larger metropolitan area of ​​Tshwane, which includes the capital of Pretoria, are pushing vaccinations, especially among young adults who have been straining. time to get vaccinated.

At TUT, as the university is called, few students wanted to talk about the new variant that threw a veil. Many were not vaccinated – only 22% of 18-34 year olds in South Africa are – and some seemed to be rethinking, although notably the university’s vaccination center was closed for the weekend.

Manqoba Zitha, a student who was vaccinated, said he would urge his classmates to do the same.

“I’m trying to encourage them so that they can vaccinate, so that 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 watch TV we can see that people are contracting the coronavirus. So they have to vaccinate!

Almost two years after the start of the pandemic, the world race to contain the latest variant, identified for the first time in southern Africa, but which is appearing around the world. Countries are imposing restrictions or bans on travelers from multiple countries – much to the dismay of the South African government – and reimposing measures such as mask warrants some hoped to be a thing of the past.

The World Health Organization named the new version of the virus “omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible variant of concern, although its real risks are not yet understood. Early evidence suggests this poses an increased risk that people who have previously had COVID-19 could catch it again, the WHO said. It could take weeks to find out if current vaccines are less effective against her.

Still, some experts hope the vaccines are at least effective enough to prevent serious illness and death – and continue to encourage people to get vaccinated.

The province of Gauteng, home to Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, is the center of the new wave. So far, cases appear to be mild, doctors say, and hospital admissions have not increased.

But experts warn that the first wave of infections hit young people and the situation could become more serious if the new wave affects older, unvaccinated South Africans. In total, 41% of people aged 18 and over are vaccinated – but young people have been particularly slow to come forward.

At least three South African universities – the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the Free State University of Bloemfontein – have announced that vaccinations will be mandatory for students from next year . Some experts believe that additional measures will be necessary.

“I think the decision South Africa is going to have to make is probably about compulsory vaccination,” said Mosa Moshabela, professor of public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.

Demand for the vaccine has been so slow that the government recently requested slower deliveries to give it time to use up its current stock of 19 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

A new wave was long overdue and even a new variant, but the speed at which the omicron struck came as a “shock” to South African health experts.

Although the number of confirmed cases is still relatively low, it is increasing at a high rate. The new peak started after a few student nights in Pretoria. The numbers quickly grew from a few hundred cases per day to thousands. South Africa announced on Saturday 3,220 new cases, including 82% in Gauteng, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases. This is still well below the peak of the last wave, when more than 25,000 were confirmed in one day.

Up to 90% of new cases in Gauteng province are caused by omicron, said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Research Sequencing Platform. in a tweet, citing diagnostic test results.

“We expected to see a new or different variant gain momentum in wave four… but we didn’t really expect to see a variant with the type of multiplicity of mutations. And it’s capable of becoming highly transmissible and evading or evading immunity at the same time, ”said Moshabela, the University of KwaZulu-Natal expert. “It was really the shock we got.”

Although the current cases are concentrated in Pretoria and Johannesburg, tests show that omicron is already present in all nine provinces of South Africa.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa met with health officials this weekend and is expected to address the nation on Sunday evening about the increase in cases.

Back at TUT, Nhlanhla Africa Maphosa, a 25-year-old management student, is still trying to digest the news and what it will mean for his studies.

“It wasn’t until last week that they checked the statistics, then they realized that so many students were affected by COVID-19 on the main campus,” Maphosa said. “We’re not so sure about the statistics. … But what we can say is that a high level or a high percentage of students have contracted COVID-19.

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Meldrum reported from Johannesburg. Follow AP’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic on https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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