The Dean of health sciences faculty urges students to “remain calm” amid the spread of COVID-19.

Wits University has announced its first confirmed case of Covid-19 on Sunday, March 15. The student had been in quarantine since Tuesday, March 10 after she had come into contact with an individual who was confirmed to have had the virus.

The announcement, made by the university’s Senior Executive Team (SET), also came with the news that the affected person, a medical student, had attended classes before the diagnosis, potentially exposing 350 of her classmates to the virus.

The faculty of health sciences has reacted to the possible exposure of these students by cancelling a number of classes and imposing a self-quarantine on the students who were traced to the affected student. All contact classes for Wits have been indefinitely cancelled as of Monday, March 16. This cancellation includes clinical teaching within the healthcare sector.

Wits Vuvuzela spoke to members of the faculty to find out what specific measures have been put in place for the safety of medical students.

On Friday, March 6, as the virus was starting to become more widespread in South Africa, the dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Prof Martin Veller, released a statement urging students operating within the health care sector to “remain calm and continue to exercise [their] responsibilities as per normal and without prejudice”.

After confirming the quarantine of the affected student, all clinical engagements were cancelled on Friday, March 13. Professor Daynia Ballot, HOD for clinical medicine, said the engagements were cancelled as the faculty did not want to “put potentially infected students within that environment”.

Ballot added that, in line with National Institute for Communicable Disease (NICD) guidelines, patients suspected to have COVID-19 “are not seen within the normal clinical settings that the students are working in”, but in specific isolated areas. “The risk of a student contracting the virus within the hospital setting shouldn’t be too high,” Ballot said.

Wits regards to the safety of students in these hospitals, Ballot said that “it is much the responsibility of the clinical environment to treat students as they would health care practitioners”.

Fifth year GEMP 3 (Graduate Entry Medical Programme) student, Taskeen Mather, tells Wits Vuvuzela that the cancellation of clinical teaching did not come easily. “It took the SRC and the MSC (Medical Students Council), to convince the university that the clinical years and allied medical clinical years could be carriers [of the virus] too,” Mather said.

Mather says it was more of a concern to be a vessel of the virus and carry it to the vulnerable. “It’s a shame because we all do interact, be it on campus or at res or recreationally and we’re essentially vessels to the severely immune-compromised in the hospitals,” she said.

Jeremy Croock, another fifth year GEMP 3 student, says that he supports Prof Veller’s statement urging those within the health care sector to remain calm. “In my opinion it is the responsibility of all people in the health care sector to remain calm and continue treating their patients without prejudice,” Croock said.

Croock says that a major concern within hospitals are the “sub optimal working conditions”, and points specifically to the lack of equipment, “particularly personal protective equipment and most notably N95 respirator masks.”

“We have a lot of students  with a belief that ‘we’ve signed up for this life’ and I think it’s a very detrimental mindset that could do more harm than good when we’re really not essential personnel in the hospitals yet, Maher said.

Wits’ clinical teaching sites and the centres of isolation and treatment of COVID-19 in South Africa. Graphic: Emma O’Connor

Out of the 41 healthcare institutions that Wits medical students could possibly do their practical work at, only two are considered centres of isolation and treatment for people infected with the virus.

These hospitals are the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital situated next to Wits Medical Campus in Gauteng, and the Klerksdorp Hospital in the North West.

Gauteng Health MEC, Bandile Masuku, speaking to eNCA said that these centres of isolation were chosen is due to the “ventilation system they have at the hospital, which is not combined with the ventilation of the whole hospital.”

Wits senior communications officer, Buhle Zuma, said “the SET has established a management committee to consistently [daily] monitor the COVID-19 outbreak and to make recommendations to the SET around prevention, mitigation and the management of any COVID-19 incidents.”

Zuma said that the university is currently in “phase one of a detailed, phased, emergency response plan”. She also notes the responsibility that each member of the Wits community holds with regards to COVID-19:

“The combined proficiency and committed efforts of all members of the Wits community will be required to prevent, contain, prepare for, respond to, and, recover from the potential effects of this emerging infectious pandemic.”

Similarly, Ballot says that this is not just a disease affecting an individual but rather one that impacts the whole community:

“If you present the symptoms there is no need to be afraid of stigmatisation; you get tested and you’re either found to be positive or negative of the virus and can move forward either way.” She added that “trying to hide the disease will only spread the virus further.”

Should the COVID-19 situation in South Africa escalate, Zuma told Wits Vuvuzela that there is “an academic continuity programme” that has been developed and that “the university can switch to remote/online learning if required, although with adaptation of the academic programme.”

No communication has currently been received by the medical students who fall outside of the GEMP 1 category on what the plan for the upcoming week is. Mather told Wits Vuvuzela of the uncertainty surrounding this ordeal, “We’ve been asking for directive on where and how or if we should be getting ourselves tested.”

FEATURED IMAGE: The Wits Faculty of Health Sciences says that the risk of exposure to coronavirus for their students doing practicals at hospitals is low. Photo: Emma O’Connor