Commemorating the first positive COVID-19 case

When dawn broke on March 5th 2020, our nation held its breath as the Minister of Health, Dr Zwelini Mkhize announced that the first positive COVID-19 case was confirmed by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). One year down the line, and in commemoration of the first positive case being detected, it is fitting to recognise those who were instrumental in ensuring South Africa’s response preparedness to the outbreak.

But in order to understand how the first case was detected, and what progress had been made, one needs to turn back the clock to when it all started on 31 December 2019.  New Year’s cheer and merriment quickly fizzled when the World Health Organization reported a cluster outbreak of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. Shortly thereafter it was confirmed that the outbreak was caused by a new coronavirus strain. News of the outbreak rapidly reached South African shores, resulting in NICD epidemiologists taking note. This put in motion a chain of events that ensured the country’s readiness in responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

In the above video Prof Cheryl Cohen, Drs Jinal Bhiman, Kerrigan McCarthy and Mignon du Plessis, and Mr Nevashan Govender each share riveting accounts of how their lives changed overnight. From demanding work conditions that encroached on their personal lives to the grueling process of operational and procedural changes in the workplace, they give unique insights into what transpired behind the scenes.

Prof Cheryl Cohen reflects on how the rapid pace at which the disease was spreading globally, was telltale that it would not be long before the virus reached South Africa. With the NICD directing all its resources to keeping a watchful eye on global trends, Dr Jinal Bhiman and the team from the Centre for Respiratory Disease and Meningitis (CRDM) was mobilised to develop diagnostic testing. The efficacy of the test was critical in detecting the virus, and was also rolled out on a national scale to both the public and private sectors. In preparation of specimen testing, which commenced on 28 January 2020, Dr Mignon du Plessis gives insight into the process of transforming the laboratory into a high function diagnostic workspace. She also shares how seemingly insurmountable challenges revealed the team’s resilience in defying the odds.

The aggressive spread of the virus left the World Health Organization with no alternative other than declaring COVID-19 a global health emergency on 30 January 2020. In the South African context, this meant that an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) had to be activated. Mr Nevashan Govender explains the strategic importance the EOC played in emergency preparedness and management of the outbreak. Lastly Prof Kerrigan McCarthy tackles some tough questions the NICD faced in the early stages of the outbreak.

Upon reflection we salute the collective efforts of the extraordinary NICD staff who remained steadfast and focused in helping South Africa navigate through one of its darkest hours.

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