‘Omicron could be the cause of spike in new infections in Byo’

Health officials in Bulawayo believe the flu outbreak that hit the city recently could be the Omicron Covid-19 variant due to the symptoms being exhibited by patients.

The omicron variant was first detected in South Africa and Botswana last month, with scientists saying it’s fairly mild compared to the Delta variant.

Dr Edwin Sibanda

Responding to questions on the dominant variant in Bulawayo, Director of Health Services Department, Dr Edwin Sibanda, believed the Omicron variant due to its characteristics was driving up cases in the city.

He, however, noted they could not confirm with certainty since genome sequencing was expensive to conduct on each Covid-19 case.

“Unfortunately, the current PCR tests that we are doing in Zimbabwe just pick that you have Covid-19 but we do not do gene sequencing for every test that we have because it is both tedious in terms of time and very expensive. So to us, Covid-19 is Covid-19,” he said.

“There’s no worrying whether it’s not Omicron, Delta, Alpha or Beta. For now, we are waiting for the Ministry of Health (and Child Care ) to come up with sequencing for everybody and say ‘tell us what proportion is due from Omicron and what proportion is from other variants.’”

Dr Sibanda added, “for now, we just say you have Covid-19 but we believe the dominant strain should be Omicron because it is known to be mild, easily transmissible but causes less admissions and less oxygen desaturation.”

The city health director said as of December 8, 2021, Bulawayo had 14 958 cases of Covid-19 of which there were 338 new cases detected on the previous day.

“If you check how many were admitted out of that 338, it was only 31 so it’s a sign that it is a mild form. People just have the disease, they are walking wounded so to speak,” said Dr Sibanda.

South African medics suspect the Omicron variant is more contagious and has been spreading faster than Delta. They said Omicron has been found to have more than 30 mutations in its spike protein, which are thought to enable it to evade natural and vaccine immunity and make it more infectious than Delta.

But those found with Omicron are reportedly able to manage it at home and most have recovered with the 10 to 14 day isolation period.

Meanwhile, Dr Sibanda explained the city had come up with best practices to control the spread of Covid-19.

“We designed a context-specific framework for Covid-19 surveillance, which was the way we were taking patients from one case to the next. This was almost unique in the city, as we were following contacts to their homes, workplaces and literally everywhere until we found them,” he said.

“We had a spatial distribution of Covid-19 cases using a Geographic Information System (GIS), designing the hot spot areas and sharing with the community.”

Dr Sibanda noted the city also developed a client contract for isolation and quarantine.

“Such that if we find you positive, there’s a small contract that you sign or make you sign, to say ‘I am Covid 19 positive and I will be staying in this address, I will do the following or I won’t do the following.’ Such that should we come back to collect you because you are not behaving, we will actually be holding you to account against what you would have signed,” said the health director.

“That contract is there and one of the things that we designed within a city to make sure people read, understand and sign it before we leave them in their own houses.”

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