Steve Biko Hospital cracking under Covid-19 pressure

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Bongani Siziba

Johannesburg – From afar, one would be forgiven for misconstruing the clutter of tents pitched outside Steve Biko Academic Hospital buildings in Pretoria for those meant celebrations but on getting closer, you discern a sense of despair similar to that one gets on arriving a refugee camp.

A nightmarish atmosphere surrounded the facilities during my two-hour tour. It was like a horror movie.

Right from the entrance, it is evident that the hospital cannot cope with Covid-19 infections with oxygen cylinders strewn around the grounds. The tents have been turned into holding wards as the hospital is filled to the brim.

Ambulance sirens wail continuously as more critically ill patients are brought in. it was like a dream witnessing ambulance bringing in the living competing with mortuary ambulances that had come to fetch dead bodies.

It is an utterly grim situation.

A peak into some of the tents, I saw several patients lying haplessly on small mattresses with oxygen tanks right next to them.

Last year, the Department of Health combined Tshwane District Hospital and Steve Biko Hospital into one bigger complex in anticipation of a flood of patients.

On Monday, Gauteng premier David Makhura and MEC Dr Nomathemba Makgethi visited Steve Biko Academic Hospital following the circulation of social media videos and pictures depicting a situation that has gone out of hand.

Responding to journalists on why there are tents in the parking lot, Makhura said Steve Biko was a cluster hospital linked with several other hospitals linked to it in the province.

“Some patients come from provinces and some from private facilities because of lack of space. The number of admissions in our hospitals have doubled everywhere in the last seven days. In December we were receiving about 100 patients daily and those numbers have doubled.

“What you see here are fever tents for patients who have not been tested. Most of the people who arrive here are called PIU (people under investigation) and most would not have been tested or they would be awaiting their results. We use the fever tents for such people,” Makhura said.

Makhura’s visit was amid fears that the Gauteng province hospitals were struggling to contain the second wave which has been fuelled by a new variant of Covid-19.

Gauteng Health Department said it has had recorded a surge in Covid-19 admissions starting in December and these have strained the system.

The complex is under pressure with patients who require specialist and immediate attention and therefore, can be treated in only certain hospitals, which are also overwhelmed,” said Provincial health MEC spokesperson Kwara Kekana.

Inside one of the tents at Steve Biko Hospital

While scientists are still trying to understand the new Covid-19 strain, health professionals are becoming overwhelmed with daily increases and are only hoping that professionals whose contracts are expiring this month.

Steve Biko Chief Executive officer Mathabo Mathebula said the second wave caught them unawares.

“We didnt expect that it would come this early because scientist had projected otherwise, that is why we had allowed staffers to take a break…” Mathebula said.

She said they have now been forced to activate their disaster management plan.

The department will also re-open Nazrec Field Hospital with an additional of 500 beds that all have oxygen.

Nursing Union, Denosa slammed Makhuras visit and blamed the Department of Health for failing to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) in hospitals.

“What is happening at Steve Biko is not surprising. It was predicted that the second wave was coming and they did not prepare. His (Makhura’s) visit will not achieve anything, said Denosa chairperson Siphiwe Gada.

However, Dr Mokgethi said they were managing with the available PPE.

There is no issue on PPE. I met with CEOs of hospitals and they told me that there was no issue around that she said.

Althought the images at Steve Biko show that the hospital is overwhelmed, Makhura insisted this was temporary attributing the situation to people returning to Gauteng after the Christmas holidays.

On Monday, South Africa had recorded 15 046 and 461 Covid-19 related deaths. This brought the total to 1 246 643 cases and 33 579 deaths with a recovery rate of 78.1%, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said.

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