South African province at centre of Omicron COVID variant sees more children in hospital

South Africa’s most populous province has seen a rise in hospitalisations of children with COVID-19 since the new Omicron variant was identified.

However, all are “mild” cases and expected to recover, an official in the Gauteng Department of Health said.

Sky News quoted public health specialist Dr. Ntsakisi Maluleke on Saturday as saying that 113 of the 1,511 people tested positive for the virus in the province’s hospitals were under nine years of age – a proportion of seven percent.

“We are comforted by clinicians’ reports that the children have mild disease”, Maluleke said.

He stressed that doctors did not yet know which variants the patients had, and that the admissions were largely precautionary.

“They would rather have a child under care for a day or two than having a child at home and complicating”, Maluleke said, “but we really need to wait for the evidence”.

Maluleke also said many coronavirus patients in the province were experiencing “non-specific” flu-like symptoms typical of the Omicron variant, including a scratchy irritated, throat but no loss of sense taste or smell.

“The public needs to be less fearful but vigilant”, she insisted.

The small but gold-rich central highland province of Gauteng includes Pretoria, the seat of the executive government, South Africa’s financial centre, and biggest city Johannesburg and its busiest airport, O.R. Tambo.

With 12 to 15 million inhabitants, it is home to up to a quarter of the country’s population.

On Friday, Maluleke told South African media that the positivity rate for COVID-19 – the percentage of those tested showing infection – in Gauteng had jumped from 19 percent at the start of the week to 34 percent by Friday.

That was far higher than the 24.3 percent positivity rate for the whole country, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) the same day – although fewer than 20 million tests have been carried out since the start of the pandemic.

In the UK, by contrast, less than five percent of the roughly one million tests every day gives a positive result.

An overwhelming 8,280 of the 11,535 new cases in the country on Thursday – 72 percent – were found in Gauteng.

The Omicron variant is known to spread faster and has almost completely displaced the earlier Beta and Delta variants in the province where its outbreak is centred.

Dr. Michelle Groome, head of the NICD’s Public Health Surveillance and Response division, said Gauteng would enter its “fourth wave” of the pandemic on Friday.

He added that that the “reproduction rate” of the virus was above the critical level of one – meaning an exponentially-increasing number of cases – in all provinces, although growth was lowest in the Northern Cape.

“There is evidence that it is more transmissible and that there is some immune escape”, he said, but reassured South Africans: “It’s not necessarily related to severity”.

“We cannot make any calls on severity just because it is more transmissible. It’s early days”, Groome said. “We need to have more information in the next two to three weeks. All we need to do is prepare”.

South African Medical Association chairwoman Angelique Coetzee, who found some of the first cases of the Omicron variant, said last week that it caused “extremely mild” symptoms and no patient had yet been hospitalised with it.

On Friday, the World Health Organisation said that no deaths from the new “variant of concern” had been recorded, despite it spreading to at least 38 countries, including most of Western Europe, India, Australia, Brazil, the US, Canada, and Mexico.


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