South Africa has stopped tracing and quarantining contacts of confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases with immediate effect, the health department has said, as the country tries to bounce back from economic downturn precipitated by the pandemic.
The Director-General of the Department of Health, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, confirmed on Thursday that contact tracing would be stopped with immediate effect except in congregate settings and cluster outbreak situations or self-contained settings.
“All contacts must continue with their normal duties with heightened monitoring (daily temperature testing, symptom screening). If they develop symptoms, then they should be tested and be managed according to the severity of the condition,” Buthelezi said.
The move comes after scientists and members of the medical fraternity had advised the government that the economic hub of Gauteng province had now passed the peak of a fourth wave.
The Omicron variant of the COVID-19 appears to be having a less severe impact than the earlier variants, a study in South Africa has found.
This variant was first identified by South African scientists last month and it has sparked extensive research into its impact.
“In South Africa, Omicron is behaving in a way that is less severe,” said Cheryl Cohen, professor in epidemiology at the University of the Witwatersrand, who shared results of a research titled ‘Early Assessment of the Severity of the Omicron variant in South Africa’ in an online briefing by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Some of the other reasons being cited for this decision is that the proportion of people with some immunity from infection and/or vaccination remained high.
“(These) strategies are no longer appropriate. Mitigation is the only viable strategy. (This is) especially true of the newer, more infectious/transmissible variants like Omicron,” Buthelezi said.
“Quarantine has been costly to essential services and society as many people stay away from their work and thus lose their income and children miss on their schooling,” he explained.
The other reason includes skewed testing towards a symptomatic minority, which does not factor in the newer variants and pre-existing immunity.
The financial sector has welcomed these measures, as South Africa attempts to recover from its longest economic downturn in over three decades.
According to the latest norms, isolation norms would continue to apply for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, who return to work from Day 10 onwards, but no isolation is required for patients with mild symptoms.
They are only required to be under self-observation with enhanced precautions that include wearing masks, avoiding social gathering and maintaining social-distancing norms.
Mild diseases refer to persons who have symptoms and have been tested positive, but who do not require hospitalisation.
“There is no need for COVID-19 test (either PCR or antigen test) to be performed prior to returning to work after eight days of isolation. For mild cases, isolation beyond eight days must be supported by the medical report,” Buthelezi added.