PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) – Cloudy, drizzling skies match the gloomy mood at Tshwane University of Technology, a hotspot in South Africa’s latest spike in COVID-19 cases, apparently triggered by a new omicron variant that is leading countries around the world introducing new restrictions.
After several students tested positive, the university postponed some exams, and officials in the larger metropolitan area of Tshwane, which includes the capital Pretoria, are pushing for vaccinations, especially among young people who are in no rush to get vaccinated.
At HERE, as the university is called, few of the students wanted to talk about a new version that cast a shadow. Many have not been vaccinated – only 22% of young people between the ages of 18 and 34 in South Africa – and some seem to have rethought this, although, in particular, the university vaccination center was closed for the weekend.
Mancoba Zita, a student who was vaccinated, said he would push his classmates to do the same.
“I’m trying to inspire them so they can get vaccinated and stay away from the coronavirus, because it is, killing people, and now the number is growing,” said Zita. “Now, when we watch TV, we see that people are contracting the coronavirus. So they must be vaccinated! “
Nearly two years after the outbreak of the pandemic, the world is seeking to contain the latter, first spotted in southern Africa but emerging worldwide. Countries are imposing restrictions or bans on travelers from multiple countries – much to the dismay of the South African government – and re-enacting measures such as mask bans, which some had hoped were a thing of the past.
The World Health Organization has named the new version of the virus “omicron” and has classified it as a dangerous variant with a high transmission rate, although its real risks have not yet been studied. According to the WHO, early evidence suggests that this poses an increased risk that people who have already had COVID-19 could get it again. It can take weeks to find out if current vaccines are less effective against it.
However, some experts hope that vaccines will be at least somewhat effective in preventing serious illness and death, and will continue to encourage people to get vaccinated.
The province of Gauteng, home to Pretoria and South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, is the center of a new uptick. According to doctors, so far the cases of the disease are mild, and the number of hospitalizations has not increased.
But experts warn that an early round of infection was among young people, and the situation could become more serious if a new surge affects elderly, unvaccinated South Africans. Overall, 41% of people aged 18 and over are vaccinated, but young people are particularly reluctant to take a step forward.
At least three South African universities – the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg and the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein – have announced that vaccinations will become mandatory for students from next year. Some experts believe that further action will be required.
“I really think the decision South Africa will have to make is likely to have to do with mandatory vaccinations,” said Mosa Moshabela, professor of public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.
The demand for the vaccine has been so sluggish that the government recently called for slower supplies to give it time to use up its current supply of 19 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The new surge was long overdue and even a new option, but the speed with which the omicron hit came as a shock to South African health experts.
Although the number of confirmed cases is still relatively small, they are growing rapidly. A new surge began after student parties in Pretoria. The numbers quickly rose from a few hundred cases a day to thousands. South Africa announced 3,220 new cases on Saturday, 82% of which are in Gauteng, according to the National Institute for Infectious Diseases. This is still well below the peak of the last wave, when over 25,000 were confirmed in a day.
Up to 90% of new cases in Gauteng province are due to the omicron, said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal province’s innovation and sequencing research platform, citing the results of diagnostic tests.
“We really expected that we could see a new or different variant gaining ground in the fourth wave … but we really did not expect to see a variant with such a multiplicity of mutations. And it can simultaneously become highly prevalent and elude immunity, ”said Moshabela, an expert at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “It was a real shock that we experienced.”
Although cases are currently concentrated in Pretoria and Johannesburg, tests indicate that the omicron is already present in all nine provinces in South Africa.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa met with health officials over the weekend and is set to address the nation on Sunday night with an increase in cases.
Back at TUT, Nhlanhla Afrika Maposa, a 25-year-old management student, is still trying to digest the news and understand what it will mean for his studies.
“Just last week, they checked the statistics and realized that there were a lot of students affected by COVID-19 on the main campus,” Mafosa said. “We’re not sure about the statistics. … But we can say that a high rate or a high percentage of students have contracted COVID-19. “
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