SA has half the ventilators it may need for Covid-19 surge

Dr Anban Pillay. Picture: Thapelo Morebudi/ The Sunday Times
SA has less than half the ventilators that the health department estimates it will be needed to treat patients at the peak of the Covid-19 crisis.

The gap, contained in figures provided to parliament by the department, is a stark reminder of why the government has imposed stringent controls on travel, trade and social gatherings to try and slow transmission of the coronavirus, which has sickened just over 2,000 people and killed 24 in SA.

Slowing transmissions gives the government more time to ready the health system, train staff, and procure vital supplies ranging from ventilators to protective equipment for health-care personnel. SA is currently halfway through a five-week lockdown, which was originally due to end on April 17, before President Cyril Ramaphosa extended it to the end of the month.

The health department’s estimates show SA currently has 3,216 ventilators, with 2,105, or roughly two-thirds, in the private sector. It puts the projected need at 7,000, based on modelling of the epidemic that puts the peak demand for hospital beds in June. The figures are contained in a PowerPoint presentation circulated after a virtual meeting of parliament’s portfolio committee on health on Friday.

Covid-19 is a potentially deadly respiratory disease that in severe cases attacks the lungs. There is currently no cure, and the main treatment for patients who are struggling to breathe is supplementary oxygen. Patients who are in severe respiratory distress are sedated and put on a ventilator, which pushes oxygen into their lungs.

The department’s acting director-general, Anban Pillay, said between 25,000 and 70,000 hospital beds would be required for Covid-19 patients at the epidemic’s peak, and between 4,000 and 14,000 ICU beds. Work was underway to identify sites for field hospitals, including stadiums, convention centres and military facilities, and provinces were assessing their mortuary capacity, he said.

The presentation highlights the massive quantities of personal protective equipment the department estimates the public health sector will need over the next six months. Despite recent donations by Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma and supplies procured by the Solidarity Fund and other donors, the government still needs to source and order 100-million surgical masks for health-care workers and patients, and 10.3-million N95 respirators.

The global shortage of personal protective equipment, which has seen even rich nations scrambling to obtain supplies, has prompted the health department to direct the public not to use medical masks. Instead, it is recommending that members of the public use cloth masks when they go out in public.

By TAMAR KAHN – kahnt@businesslive.co.za

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