HIGHER HEALTH, the agency mandated by the Department of Higher Education and Training to safeguard student health and wellbeing, is concerned with reports of pockets of COVID infections within student communities as the 2021 academic year gets under way.
“It is normal and understandable to feel excited to be starting your tertiary education or to be happy to meet your peers. We sympathise with first-year students – this is the time to make new friendships and experiences. But cluster outbreaks of COVID are not a joke,” says Professor Ramneek Ahluwalia, the CEO of HIGHER HEALTH.
“We saw how rapidly South Africa was pushed into the second wave of the pandemic in December following super-spreader school-end events, like the Ballito “rage” party. The current outbreaks across some of our institutions are extremely warrying and remind us of the brutal second wave that has just passed South Africa. We certainly don’t want to immediately step into the third wave.
“Ours is a youth-centred sector. While COVID has largely been detrimental for the older population groups, the virus is mutating and new variants are showing a higher affinity towards young people who can serve as carriers and fasten the spread of infection. Unfortunately, that would fire up the third wave.”
HIGHER HEALTH is asking students and everyone in the academic sector to respect the health of their families and others in their social circles and to join in a social compact. “It’s simple – it means that I want to protect you and I am respectfully asking you to protect me. We can do that by observing the basic COVID protocols.”
Professor Ahluwalia says the post schooling education and training sector – which encompasses all public sector universities and colleges – joins President Cyril Ramaphosa and national leaders in drawing attention to the fact that the third wave of the pandemic is knocking on South Africa’s doors. This is happening at a time that students are being inducted into the 2021 academic year while millions of people look forward to religious observations during April.
Professor Ahluwalia says this brings the country to a sensitive time. HIGHER HEALTH has been working closely with higher education and training institutions, the Department of Health, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and the National Health Laboratory Service to establish cluster outbreak investigation teams. In the last fortnight, over 3 000 students and staff have being screened and contact traced, and over 300 individuals have been tested.
“Enabling access to testing and getting the results quickly through our collaborations with the health authorities, early isolation for those who are suspected to be infected or at high risk and moving to quarantine facilities when warranted are the right measures to contain outbreaks. This is a 24/7 priority for our cluster team so we can break the chain of the outbreak. We fear that with Easter holidays from tomorrow till 6 April, as much as we are monitoring the outbreak, students might take infections into families and communities.
“Hence, HIGHER HEALTH and local health departments have equipped screening stations around residences, a fleet of mobile clinics is backing institutional campus clinics and occupational health and employee wellness teams are on site to provide psychosocial and other health and wellness assistance to the affected residents. In order to respond to the latest outbreaks, we have trained over 500 staff members involved in student support, security, residential, cleaning and other support services on COVID protocols, disinfection and other safety measures.”
Professor Ahluwalia reminds students and staff to use tailor-made tools and mechanisms to prevent COVID infections and to protect and improve their health and psychosocial wellbeing during these difficult times.