The health professionals told NewsDay that the new variant was more aggressive than the first strain of COVID-19 that hit the country last year and more people were likely to succumb to the disease given the country’s collapsed health system.
As at yesterday morning, Zimbabwe had 20 499 confirmed cases, including 12 439 recoveries and 483 deaths, while the national recovery rate had slumped from around 95% to 60,7%.
On January 5, the country registered a record 34 deaths and 1 365 new cases, and the figures kept rising throughout the whole week, and were likely to double this week, according to the health experts.
The doctors expressed concern that government statistics were not reflective of the reality on the ground because most people could not afford the polymerase chain reaction testing fees, resulting in them dying at home before being tested.
Johannes Marisa, president of the Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe Association, said government was employing poor data capture techniques, with the majority of patients in remote areas succumbing to the virus before being tested.
“This new variant is deadlier than the old one,” Marisa said.
“We are running out of oxygen more than we did in the previous wave. There is also a surge in admissions because more patients are exhibiting serious symptoms, unlike in the previous wave, where patients would recover after suffering from mild symptoms.”
He said unlike other symptoms, shortness of breath could not be managed at home because there was need for ventilators, oxygen and medical expertise to be handy.
“In the previous coronavirus wave, shortness of breath was affecting about 30% of the patients, but with this new variant, 45%50% of the patients are being affected by the symptom. The challenge is that there is no adequate equipment. It’s disheartening as a medical health officer to send home a patient who is in a state of 80% desaturation,” he said.
Marisa also said government should consider setting up testing centres in all densely-populated areas such as high-density suburbs.
“If the public delays seeking medical help when they have been affected by the disease, chances of recovery are very slim. Therefore, government should avail more testing facilities in the residential suburbs to ensure everyone has access to testing.”
Chief co-ordinator of the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Agnes Mahomva said the surge in the number of COVID -19 cases would naturally trigger more deaths.
“The public is advised to augment government measures of reducing the virus by complying with the necessary precautionary measures. Government alone without the input of the public cannot fight the disease. The public should adhere to the laid-down regulations so as to flatten the curve on new cases,” said Mahomva.
Zimbabwe Senior Hospital Doctors Association president Shingai Nyaguse said the current surge in new infections was spawned by people exhibiting a lassez-faire attitude towards the disease and flouting the prescribed preventive measures.
She said to effectively fight the disease, even those with mild symptoms should seek medical help since late presentation of patients at hospital was resulting in poor prognosis.
“However, most public hospitals are not in a capacity to admit new patients, therefore, many will die without seeking medical attention,” said Nyaguse.
“It is very unfortunate that nine months after we were hit hard by the virus, we are not prepared for this surge. Already, there are reports of people dying in car parks in the open before accessing medical help, which depicts a crisis in the health sector.”
The doctors said the most common symptom of the new variant was shortness of breath, which was affecting even those who did not have underlying conditions.
Former Health minister Henry Madzorera said: “Recovery rate is on the decrease, but the important figure to keep our eyes on is the death rate. Nobody has ever asked me if my COVID-19 patients have recovered or not and I ask them if the rapid response team went to their house, they say no, they came only the first time. I don’t know how they are working recovery rates when no one is actually following up.”
He added: “A lot of these statistics are done in the office, I think, and not on the ground. A figure which you cannot lie about is the death rate, where somebody has died, they are capturing all the deaths, but again, I don’t think all deaths are being recorded because many people die before they are tested.
“We have a big problem. I think there is much more in terms of people dying before they are tested. Our recovery rate is not true because data collection is not being done diligently.
“They are doing thumb suck figuring and not using our true health communication system that we have. I don’t know why they have not kicked in the proper system which has been operational.”
Mpilo Central Hospital acting chief executive officer Solwayo Ngwenya said Zimbabwe and neighbouring South Africa maintained recovery rates of around 95% in the first wave, causing relaxation of lockdowns, and relaxed populations.
“The virus returned in a more devastating second wave, look at the falling recovery rates! We are tottering on the brink; mass deaths!” he warned.
Last week, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights called on government to build on the capacity of health workers, nurses, doctors and primary health workers.
“There is need for ongoing training of health workers on case definition, case management and how they adequately respond to the possibility of a new COVID-19 variant/strain … Zimbabwe is likely to have a more nationwide spread of COVID-19 and there is need for other cadres like primary healthcare workers in rural health centres who were not previously involved in the management of COVID-19 cases to be capacitated,” the rights doctors said.