Gauteng is ready for a lighter lockdown – but it must happen slowly, expert warns

Gauteng premier David Makhura says that the Covid-19 pandemic is entering a new period in the province – showing signs of recovery, but with warnings that the storm is far from over.

The latest data release by the Department of Health shows that Gauteng has 194,685 recorded cases of Covid-19 – 34.2% of the national total – with 2,761 deaths and 152,061 recoveries.

This leaves the province with 39,863 active cases, with the latest statistical models from the province pointing to a peak of 100,000 cases still predicted.

According to Makhura, June/July was the worst period of infection in Gauteng, with 6,000 new infections daily. Fatalities also shot up dramatically during this time, he noted.

“We are now still going through the storm, but we are seeing some positive developments,” he said. “The road ahead is still long.”

He said that the provincial government is taking a data-driven approach to the virus, and will continue to observe the data and the measures put in place, as well as compliance levels.

“We are in a permanent state of adaptive response. Strategies will be changed as new developments occur,” he said.

Gauteng’s acting MEC for health Jacob Mamabolo said earlier this week that the province expects to see a spike in new cases in the coming weeks.

While current data shows a positive trend in infections, he said the provincial forecast modelling paints a more worrying picture.

Latest models

Presenting the latest prediction models for the province, Wits professor Bruce Mellado, has outlined how the province is currently handling the pandemic in terms of active cases, and what could lie ahead if schools reopen, or there is a move to lockdown level 2.

According to the department, the statistical models in Gauteng are being revised continuously, with the latest data showing a significant improvement on previous models from June and July.

Given the province’s handling of the surge in infections over the last two months, two new scenarios have been projected through to May 2021.

These have been broadly named the “optimistic” and “pessimistic” scenarios.

The optimistic scenario sees Gauteng’s peak infections happening further down the road, while the pessimistic scenario has the peak arriving soon.

In the optimistic scenario, while infections continue to rise (in cumulative numbers), the active case curve flattens, putting less strain on the healthcare system.

Under this scenario, the province hits its peak in December 2020 / January 2021, topping out at 100,000 active infections.

In the pessimistic scenario, active cases peak slightly earlier, but in greater number.

Here, the peak is sooner, in November/December 2020, with active cases at around 120,000.

Lockdown level 2 and schools

Both of the aforementioned scenarios are based on schools remaining closed over the peak period, and lockdown restrictions remaining at level 3.

Having schools fully reopening in August and adding that into the modelling changes things significantly.

This would pull the peak in the pessimistic scenario even closer (to late October, early November), with the number of active cases at the peak more than doubling in the pessimistic scenario, Mellado said.

“This basically speaks to the fact that policy changes, even small ones, can have a big impact. Things need to be done in a phased way,” he said.

The other major consideration is what happens if the province moves from lockdown level 3 to level 2 or even level 1.

Here, similar outcomes are seen. The modelling shows a move to level 2 in September would lead to a peak of infection hitting in mid-October – with the number of active cases in the pessimistic scenario quadrupling.

Both the school reopening and moves to lower level lockdowns reflect rapid or immediate changes, hence the sharp data response.

“Again, whatever we do has to happen slowly, or in phased way,” the professor said.

Mellado said that while Gauteng has been able to handle the surge of infection under current levels of lockdown, the risk of new surges remains.

The data shows that the province appears to be ready to relax lockdown restrictions, but Mellado stressed that this needs to take place gradually, and that non-pharmaceutical interventions must continue.

“Overconfidence, many times, doesn’t pay off,” he said.

Read: Gauteng likely to see spike in coronavirus infections: health MEC

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Gauteng is ready for a lighter lockdown – but it must happen slowly, expert warns