Close monitoring of novel coronavirus at Mandela University

On 9 January 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that a new coronavirus strain (COVID-19) was identified in China, linked to an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan City, in Hubei Province.

According to the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) , human coronaviruses are common throughout the world. Thus far the majority of cases have occurred in people with close physical contact to confirmed cases and healthcare workers caring for patients with COVID-19.

Since the announcement of the outbreak, more than 110 000 people across the world have contracted the virus, with the majority – about 80 000 – being in China, and the rest spread across 72 countries worldwide as at 9 March 2020.

Last Thursday, 5 March, South African Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, confirmed the country’s first COVID-19 case, in KwaZulu-Natal. A third case was confirmed in Gauteng, and this figure has increased to 13, as at Wednesday, 11 March.

All the confirmed cases are South Africans who have recently been on a holiday in Italy. These individuals, as well as the individuals with whom they have had  direct contact with, have been quarantined and are receiving treatment in a bid to contain the virus and avoid further spread.

The South African Government, through the Department of Health, has implemented  measures to detect, manage and contain any cases of the COVID-19 virus. The country’s airports, ports and border posts are routinely conducting temperature screening for all international travellers arriving into the country, with enhanced surveillance of all travellers from high epidemic areas.

The Department of Health has established a national operations centre to coordinate the government’s efforts to contain the virus. In addition, a hospital in each province has been identified as a regional centre for isolation, containment, management and treatment of the virus. In the Eastern Cape and George, the hospitals responsible for COVID-19 isolation and treatment are Livingstone Tertiary Hospital, Port Alfred Hospital, Frere Hospital, Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital and George Hospital respectively.

Since the announcement of the outbreak in January, Nelson Mandela University has been exploring ways in which it can help fight the spread of the virus. We have been closely following the COVID-19 outbreak globally and are pleased that so far, the University, Port Elizabeth and George, and the Eastern and Western Cape provinces where our campuses are located have not had any confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of 9 March 2020.

The health and wellbeing of our students and staff is our top priority. As such, since the outbreak was announced, a number of awareness raising memoranda, sharing reliable information about how the virus is spread and tips on how best to protect ourselves and minimise the risks of spreading the virus, have been shared with the University community.

Containment remains our best defence against the virus.  

We have also set up a dedicated multi-stakeholder task team to lead the University’s efforts in the fight against the COVID-19 virus. The task team, comprising representatives from various institutional offices including Health Sciences, the Office for International Education, Occupational Health and Wellness and Student Health Services, is working on an institutional strategy for the surveillance, prevention and management of the virus. It is also in direct contact with local infectious diseases experts, including Dr John Black, who heads the Infectious Diseases Unit at Livingstone Tertiary Hospital.

The task team is firming up a travel register, with the aim of monitoring staff and students’ movements in the country and abroad. While there are no official travel restrictions in place by our Government, we would caution against international travel, where possible, particularly to areas identified as high-risk. International travel warnings can be found at https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/notices.

We have established a dedicated webpage, containing all information about COVID-19 from reliable health sources, such as the WHO and the NICD in South Africa.

While the University is putting mechanisms in place to help fight the spread of the virus and ready itself as far as possible for any cases, we appeal to staff, students and all our stakeholders to also take responsibility by educating yourselves about the virus, and to heed all precautionary measures. At the heart of this is good hygiene practices.

We call on each of you to assist in actively fighting the spread of COVID-19.

More information on the implementation of the strategy, which will include aspects related to the academic project and university operations, will be shared in due course.  It is upon us to do all that we can as individuals and as a university community to keep ourselves safe from the virus.

Prof Sibongile Muthwa
Vice-Chancellor 

11 March 2020