COVID-19 advisory for the UCT community

05 March 2020 | From Kgethi

Dear colleagues and students

Concern is growing on campus – and all over the world – over the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Although there have been no reported cases in South Africa, the country remains on high alert and the relevant authorities have given assurances on their capability to contain the disease. I wrote to you on this matter a few weeks ago (read the VC Desk) and I am now giving a further update.

COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, is a rapidly changing epidemic. This update is based on information that was current as of 4 March 2020. This will be updated as and when new information becomes available.

COVID-19 has now been identified in patients in over 81 countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA) has categorised an individual’s risk of infection according to their status. Students and staff are advised to avoid or postpone travel to high risk countries where possible, including, for example, China, South Korea, Iran and Italy. In the case of countries that are currently considered low risk destinations where there are no reported cases, travellers are advised to practise standard hygiene measures that are similar to preventing the common cold and flu.

Please also be aware that the medical risks of COVID-19 are more severe in older people. People who are over 60 and/or have chronic medical conditions are advised to not travel to high risk areas unless it is absolutely essential, and to still be cautious when travelling to low risk areas.

The possibility of infection in high risk countries is likely when moving through airports and while using public transport. When travelling by aeroplane or train, wipe surfaces such as tray tables and arm rests. These are known to carry all sorts of germs, so it is worthwhile to use a “wet wipe” to clean them. The likelihood of contracting the disease by walking past an infected person who is coughing is extremely low.

Staff and students who have to travel are advised to consider their academic calendars, which could be affected should quarantine be required upon return from a high risk country, or should there be a need for them to remain in that high risk country if “lock-in” containment measures are implemented. An example of this scenario is the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where guests were contained on the ship when they were found to have been infected.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus can live for a number of days on surfaces. Most of the risk comes from touching infected surfaces and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes. The SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads from the upper airways of an infected person when they cough or sneeze – these droplets can fall onto surfaces within about a metre. A number of standard hygiene practices reduce risk while travelling:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, which can be used in place of soap and water.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, especially if you haven’t recently washed your hands.
  • Cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue into a bin.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • Although human-to-human transmission is now by far the most common way of contracting SARS-CoV-2, the World Health Organization’s advice is to stay away from wet or live-animal markets.

If you have a pre-existing medical condition or you are on medication such as steroids or other immunosuppressants, it is important that you consult with your medical practitioner or, for UCT students, the Student Wellness Service’s (SWS) health practitioners.

Should you travel, the risk of infecting people on your return depends on the destinations visited. Containment of potential infection is important. Active surveillance measures have been put in place by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in collaboration with the Department of Health to identify any possible imported case.

A pragmatic approach for travellers returning to South Africa from an area with community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 who have no symptoms (asymptomatic) is to return to activities of daily life while carefully monitoring themselves for symptoms. If symptoms develop, they are to self-isolate immediately and implement measures to prevent transmission, including meticulous hand and respiratory hygiene. They must immediately make contact with their medical practitioner or SWS health practitioner to seek healthcare.

For more information, students can contact SWS on 021 650 5620 (office hours) or 021 650 1271 (after hours), while staff can contact 021 650 5685.


Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

Please note the Frequently Asked Questions document recently distributed by Discovery Health for your information.

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