South Africa is experiencing a surge of new COVID-19 cases driven by two omicron sub-variants, according to health experts.
The new increase in COVID cases is coming as the country enters the Southern Hemisphere’s colder winter months, along with a rise in cases of flu.
At a COVID testing centre in the Chiawelo area of Soweto, many people come in to be tested for COVID, but find out they have flu.
Kenneth Malekabane says he started feeling ill at work and was asked to get tested by his employer.
“I am relieved right now because my test results have come back negative. I was ready to accept any outcome, be it positive or negative, I would’ve quarantined for 7 days,” he said.
“It’s flu versus COVID-19 now because most of the people have actually been vaccinated,” said Sister Magdeline Matsoso, head of a vaccination site in Soweto.
“They come with the flu symptoms even if they are vaccinated, but when we do the tests, you find that the majority of them, they are negative when it comes to COVID, but they do have flu symptoms,” she added.
For about three weeks the country has seen increasing numbers of new cases of COVID and somewhat higher hospitalizations, but not increases in severe cases and deaths, said Professor Marta Nunes, a researcher of Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Analytics at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.
South Africa’s new cases have gone from an average of 300 per day in early April to about 8,000 per day this week.
But Nunes says the actual number of new cases is probably much higher but because the symptoms are mild, many people are not getting tested.
“Just the number of positive cases doesn’t really tell us much because how the people that come for testing changes with time,” Nunes said.
“People got tired of COVID so now I think a lot of people do not go for testing. So, just the number of positive cases, we need to take them with a pinch of salt,” she added.
South Africa’s new surge is from two variations of omicron, BA.4 and BA.5, which appear to be very much like the original strain of omicron that was first identified in South Africa and Botswana late last year and swept around the globe.
The new versions appear to be able to infect people who have immunity from earlier COVID infections and vaccinations but they cause generally mild symptoms.
In South Africa, 45% of adults are fully vaccinated, although about 85% of the population is thought to have some immunity based on past exposure to the virus.