New coronavirus projections from Mkhize and top scientists

 ·20 May 2020

The coronavirus pandemic could claim as many as 40,000 lives when it reaches its peak in South Africa later this year, new modelling data shows.

The data was presented by a team of scientific experts and the Department of Health in a closed media briefing on Tuesday evening (19 May).

Government has typically not shared its modelling data with the public or media over fears that it could be misconstrued and cause panic.

As such, both the minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize and his team of experts noted that the data they were presenting is not final and could change depending on the country’s response as well as new data that becomes available.

The key findings from the briefing are outlined below.


Dr Mkhize said that there has been a lack of uniformity in the spread of the virus across the country, with a few districts accounting for the majority of the country’s cases.

He noted that while cases in the country initially increased sharply, they have now stabilised, and his team in now focusing on identifying and ‘intervening’ in hotspots around the country.

The department identified the following top 25 hotspots (May average):

Province District Active cases Active cases per 100,000 population
Western Cape Citry of Cape Town Metropolitan Municipality 2 199 52.59
KwaZulu Natal Lamba District Municipality 135 18.85
Eastern Cape Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality 216 16.39
Western Cape Cape Winelands District Municipality 150 16.12
Eastern Cape Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality 98 11.31
KwaZulu Natal eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality 419 11.03
Gauteng Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality 102 10.23
Gauteng City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality 296 8.22
Eastern Cape Chris Hani District Municipality 66 8.05
Western Cape Garden Route District Municipality 43 6.83
Western Cape Overberg District Municipality 13 4.32
Gauteng City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality 122 4.18
KwaZulu Natal uMgungundlovu District Municipality 34 2.90
Eastern Cape Oliver Tambo District Municipality 39 2.62
Free State Manguang Metropolitan Municipality 20 2.51
Western Cape West Coast District Municipality 11 2.26
Northern Cape Frances Baard District Municipality 7 1.95
Eastern Cape Sarah Baartman District Municipality 10 1.90
Gauteng West Rand District Municipality 16 1.85
KwaZulu Natal Umkhanyakude District Municipality 13 1.79
KwaZulu Natal Uthukele District Municipality 13 1.69
Eastern Cape Alfred Nzo District Municipality 11 1.30
Mpumalanga Gert Sibande District Municipality 15 1.20
KwaZulu Natal Ugu District Municipality 9 1.14
Eastern Cape Joe Gqabi District Municipality 4 1.07

WHO guidelines

Dr Mkhize warned that the rate of new coronavirus infections in South Africa has to slow before the country can lift a nationwide lockdown in line with World Health Organisation guidelines.

Some of the key criteria required include evidence that the Covid-19 transmission is controlled, that sufficient health capacities are in place and that outbreak risks are minimised.

Two scenarios

Dr Sheetal Silal, Head of the Modelling and Simulation Hub Africa (MASHA) at UCT, said that South Africa is facing two scenarios as it moves down to the level 3 lockdown in June.

In an optimistic scenario, the original level 5 lockdown helped reduce transmissibility by 60%, while the level 4 lockdown helped reduce transmissibility by 35%.

Once the country to moves a level 3 lockdown level in June, social distancing measures will help reduce transmissibility by 20%.

However, Silal said that in a more pessimistic scenario the social distancing measures could only reduce transmissibility by 10%.

There will be a peak in active cases in early July under the pessimistic scenario, or a peak in early August under the optimistic scenario.

Short-term projections

Dr Silal that short-term projections are updated on a weekly basis and were made and the start of May.

She said that by the end of May, their modelling projects 30,000 detected cases across the country. However, she noted that this could vary widely and could be as low as 18,710 cases or as high as 54,540.

She explained that this discrepancy is due to the difference in a number of tests conducted and the strategy used.

The  projected deaths in the country is expected to reach 475  – but once again Dr Silal that this was highly dependent on a number of factors.

Dr Silal added that the regional differences seen in the Western Cape – which currently accounts for over 60% of cases – will begin to reduce as fewer ‘cluster outbreaks’ are seen.

Long-term projections

Dr Silal that long-term projections are based on average behaviour across the provinces, but added that the uncertainty surrounding the data is particularly notable when looking further ahead.

“We are in the middle of May right now so Covid-19 has only been around in the world for four and a half months.

“Here we are trying to make projections on the entire span of the epidemic for the next six to eight months, so there is considerable uncertainty.”

Dr Silal that what can be seen from a modelling perspective is that the lockdown has flattened the curve and push the ‘peak’ out later into the year.

Looking at cumulative deaths, Dr Silal said that in an optimistic scenario there will be just over 40,000 deaths by November. She notes that could rise to between 45,000 and 48,000 deaths in a pessimistic scenario.

You can watch a truncated portion of the presentation below:

Read: 17,200 confirmed coronavirus cases in South Africa as deaths rise to 312

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