“We’re still very early in this surge, so I don’t really want to call it a wave,” Nunes said. “We’re seeing a slight, small increase in hospitalizations and really very few deaths.”
New cases in South Africa have risen from an average of 300 a day in early April to around 8,000 a day this week. Nunes says the true number of new cases is likely much higher because symptoms are mild and many of those who get sick don’t get tested.
South Africa’s new push comes from two omicron variants, BA.4 and BA.5, which closely resemble the original omicron strain that was first identified in South Africa and Botswana. at the end of last year and which swept the whole world.
“The majority of new cases come from these two strains. They’re still omicron…but just genomically somewhat different,” Nunes said. The new versions appear to be able to infect people immune to previous COVID infections and vaccinations, but they usually cause mild illness, she said. In South Africa, 45% of adults are fully vaccinated, although around 85% of the population has some immunity based on past exposure to the virus.
“Vaccines still seem to protect against serious diseases,” Nunes said.
Nunes said the BA.4 and BA.5 strains of omicron have spread to other southern African countries and a few European countries, but it is too early to tell if they will spread across the world, as did omicron.
The rise in COVID cases comes as South Africa enters the coldest winter months in the southern hemisphere and the country experiences a surge in flu cases.
At a COVID testing center in the Chiawelo area of Soweto, many people come to get tested for COVID, only to find they have the flu.
“Now we’re in flu season…so it’s flu versus COVID-19,” said Magdeline Matsoso, site manager at the Chiawelo Vaccination Center. She said people come to get tested because they have symptoms of COVID.
“When we do the tests, you see the majority of them are negative for COVID, but they have flu symptoms,” Matsoso said. “So they get treatment for the flu and then they go home because the majority is flu related and not COVID.”
Vuyo Lumkwani was among those who came to be tested.
“I didn’t feel well when I woke up this morning. I woke up with body aches, headache, stuffy nose, dizziness so I decided to come here,” she said.
“I was terrified of my symptoms because I thought it might be COVID-19, but I figured it would be okay because I got vaccinated,” Lumkwani said. She said she was relieved to be diagnosed with the flu and advised to go home with medicine and rest.
AP journalist Sebabatso Mosamo in Johannesburg contributed.