COVID-19 related deaths continue to rise is the mining industry. According to the Minerals Council South Africa’s COVID-19 dashboard, seven people have died from COVID-19 as at 26 June 2020.
Data from the dashboard also showed that out of 423 986 employees in the mining industry, 1 950 had tested positive for Coronavirus. The North West Province had the highest cases with 1057, followed by Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga with 567, 162 and 125 positive cases respectively. Other provinces also recorded positive cases with lower numbers between 1 and 27. COVID-19 cases are increasing at a rapid rate across South Africa. Latest data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) show that as at 28 June 2020, there were 138 134 positive cases with 2 456 deaths. New cases had increased by over 6 000. In a statement during the weekend, Health Minister Zweil Mkhize warned that Gauteng would soon take over the Western Cape as the country’s epicentre for the virus. This could potentially mean an increase in the number of cases in mines based in Gauteng. The Council released a statement saying that it was looking to increase its COVID-19 testing capacity. Increased testing capacity would benefit not only mine companies, but also South Africa. Companies, which are required to test employees that fail screening measures, have adopted a risk-based approach that encompasses, for example, additional testing for persons deemed to be at higher risk owing to their occupation (such as healthcare workers and security personnel) and returning mineworkers, when clusters of infection are identified. This focus on testing is in addition to the intensive screening, quarantine and isolation measures that are currently in place. The industry currently screens around 272 00 employees every time they report for work, and has undertaken 15 994 tests (as at 25 June 2020).
Approach to testing
Several mining companies have taken the initiative to procure and establish both their own testing capacity (machines, testing kits and reagents, and qualified staff), or to enter into arrangements with private facilities to secure access to increased testing capacity. At a meeting of the Minerals Council Board on 29 April 2020, the Board resolved to begin a study to see how the industry could collaborate to secure greater testing capacity for the industry, and for South Africa as a whole. Companies may participate in this initiative voluntarily, and companies may directly secure their capacity. But, it is planned that companies will collaborate regionally, and will ensure that they factor into their planning support for regional testing needs. This is especially the case for regional public health facilities that lack access to sufficient and timely diagnostic facilities critical to patient care. The ideal public health approach to any disease is to identify all cases through testing with the aim of isolating the infected individuals and thus curbing transmission to other people. As has been the case in many countries around the world, South Africa’s COVID-19 testing capacity has been severely constrained by the lack of availability of testing machines, testing kits and the availability of qualified staff. The highest total number of tests processed per day that has been achieved in South Africa to date is around 40 000. Around 51% of tests currently reported are undertaken by the public sector, with around 49% in the private sector. Of greater concern is the significant lag in processing of tests, particularly in the public sector, that has had a material impact on the country’s clinical response. Further, the private sector testing capacity is concentrated in the hands of a small number of laboratories, largely located in major metropolitan areas. Testing in South Africa is guided by the criteria stipulated by the NICD, and this guidance is the minimum standard with which the industry complies. This means that employees are to be tested only when they fail the COVID-19 screening tests. However, given the exigencies that exist within the mining operations themselves, and the fact that the industry is reporting a very high level of asymptomatic cases, there are very real reasons why the mining industry should modify its protocols. The Minerals Council is engaging directly with the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) to understand and respond to specific needs in support of the country’s testing imperative. Given the varying approaches undertaken within the industry, and the support from the Board for a greater testing intervention, the Council has engaged with leading experts, including within the Department of Health (DoH), the NICD and the NHLS as well as academic institutions to develop principles that will underpin its approach to testing. It has also relied on the guidance of the Minerals Council’s Health Policy Committee that is made up of occupational health experts from member companies.