One major contribution to South Africa's second wave of infections was a superspreader event in early December 2020. Heading into a potential third wave of COVID-19 infection - possibly just after the April holiday period - it's critical that we prevent and avoid these events and keep our guard up.
Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mhkhize, has repeatedly warned the public about the possibility of a third wave of infection, with a potential impact more devastating than the second wave. The Minister has asked that we do all we can to prevent the third wave as much as possible.
The possibility of South Africa's third wave of COVID-19 infection depends to a large part on what we each do now, in the coming weeks, and over the April holidays.
There is massive concern that holiday-related social and religious events, family gatherings, travel to popular holiday destinations and also increased consumption of alcohol will fuel so-called superspreader events.
Why do April holiday activities pose a risk?
South Africa's vaccine rollout programme started on 17 February 2021. By the end of April, only a small percentage of the population will have been vaccinated. The vaccine programme will not have reached enough people by the holiday period to lessen the chances of spread of COVID-19 in communities.
The second phase of the country's vaccine roll-out is due to begin in April or early May. It will focus on vaccinations for the elderly and people at high-risk for severe COVID-19 infection.
This means that if not prevented, a third wave of COVID-19 infection will likely coincide with the winter months. We must do all we can to avert a surge of COVID-19 infections at the same time as the annual flu season hits South Africa, which may be from April through the peak of the winter season. Key to this is making sure that we avoid superspreader events.
So, what are superspreader events?
Simply put, these are gatherings where one or more people with COVID-19 cause a large outbreak of COVID-19 infection among people attending the event.
What are examples of superspreader events?
Superspreader events aren't defined by the number of people who attend. At a superspreader event, one person spreads the COVID-19 virus to other people. These events range from large gatherings - like birthday celebrations, weddings, parties and religious gatherings - to intimate family gatherings. According to the Cleveland Clinic, it's expected that one infected person can infect two to three others at an event. That's because the virus spreads easily through droplets exhaled when we talk, sneeze or cough and are near to others. The droplets spread, for example, when we sit together at a table for a meal, or we are near each other at a concert or church service in which we all sing. The risk increases when there is poor ventilation.
How many COVID-19 viruses fit onto the tip of a sewing needle?
In a recent article, Dr Ron Whelan (Discovery Health's chief commercial officer and head of the company's COVID-19 Task Team) explained how small the COVID-19 virus is. The 1 mm tip of a sewing needle is miniscule, yet it could accommodate 10 000 COVID-19 virus particles. If these particles were blown and dispersed, like a dandelion parachute's filaments, they would be propelled into the air and land on surfaces or the ground, or get inhaled by people close by. This is what happens when people who have COVID-19 speak, cough, sneeze or exhale without taking precautions to prevent the spread of their exhaled respiratory droplets.
- Keep in mind that people who have contracted COVID-19 may not show any symptoms at all.
Do you know the 3 Vs of recognising superspreader events - and how to avoid the 3 Cs?
- Remembering the 3 Vs
- Avoiding the 3 Cs
1. Venue | AVOID crowded places
Did you know? According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you're 19 times more likely to catch COVID-19 in an indoor venue than outdoors. That's because indoor venues make ventilation and social distancing difficult - and the longer you're in the venue, the higher your chances of coming into contact with COVID-19 viral particles exhaled by an infected person.
- What should you do? Avoid spaces with large numbers of people where social distancing is not possible. Stay about two metres away from strangers and, as far as possible, simply avoid going to crowded indoor gatherings attended by many people.
- Need a way to remember how to social distance? Picture a distance of about two arms-lengths between you and the next person. That's about the length of 4 hadeda birds in Joburg or 4 penguins if you are in Cape Town, 1 small shark in KZN or 1 cow in the Free State.
2. Ventilation | AVOID confined spaces
The fresh air we have access to outdoors will dilute any airborne viral particles and the particles will also move away with the breeze. In a poorly ventilated, indoor area, these particles float in the same enclosed space, increasing our chances of infection.
- What should you do? Minimise the time you spend indoors with others and meet people outdoors - even your loved ones - as much as possible. If you are going to be eating out, aim for places outdoors and think twice about getting into confined spaces like elevators with others. Rather wait for the space to empty before getting in. Wherever possible, open windows and doors for ventilation.
3. Vocalisation | AVOID close contact settings
DID YOU KNOW? By simply talking out loud for 1 minute, you create over 1 000 droplets that stay airborne for up to 14 minutes.
Heavy breathing while exercising in a group class setting, singing and talking loudly (or shouting) spread more respiratory droplets than quiet talking does.
- What should you do? Wear your face mask at all times and avoid touching it. Don't sing when you are near others, and avoid places where loud music or other noise means that people will need to shout to be heard.
If you've considered the 3 Vs and realised you're planning to attend a potential superspreader event, rather don't go. And, if you must attend, ensure you adhere to the measures that limit your exposure to invisible, tiny viral particles in the air or on surfaces around you.
- Keep in mind that your risk of infection is highest where the 3 Vs and inability to avoid the 3 Cs overlap!
Take our 1-minute quiz if you are still unsure about attending a social event, or gathering this holiday to help you stay safe
If you are still unsure about whether or not to attend a social event, or gathering this holiday, take our 1-minute quiz to help you determine your risk of infection.
What else can you do to protect yourself?
In a recent article we shared important safety measures we can all follow, especially over the upcoming holiday period in April:
- Wear appropriate face masks when in public (and avoid touching them)
- Find out all you need to know about wearing a face mask the right way!
- Frequently wash (use soap and water for at least 20 seconds) or sanitise your hands
- Practise physical distancing
- Stay at home when feeling unwell, and practise cough and sneeze etiquette
- Quarantine for 10 days when exposed to someone who has COVID-19 and self-isolate for 10 days (or more, as required) after contracting COVID-19
Remember that you can also use technologies designed to optimise your healthcare and health awareness in the time of COVID-19. You can also use the National Department of Health's contact-tracing app, COVID Alert SA, which allows you to understand your risk of exposure and to keep others safe.
Keen to know more?
Over the December holidays, we gave you a wide range of information on keeping safe. Be sure to revisit our articles as the tips and advice will also keep you safe over the April holiday period.