By Dr Jane Ruth Aceng
The Ministry of Health would like to update the public on the current status of the COVID19 pandemic, vaccination against COVID19 and measures to curb the importation of the new COVID-19 variant known as ‘Omicron’.
Overview of COVID-19 in the country
To-date, the country has registered 127,485 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 3,252 deaths. Furthermore, the current admissions stand at 115 in both public and private facilities.
The country has sustained low transmission of COVID-19 with a positivity rate of less than 5% since September 2021.
The B.1.1.529 variant of SARS-CoV2, also known as Omicron, was first identified by scientists in South Africa in a specimen collected on 9th November 2021 and later from specimens collected between the12th – 20th November 2021, from Gauteng, South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong and subsequently reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on 24th November 2021.
A meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Advisory group on variant evolution held on 26th November named it the ‘Omicron variant’ and designated it a Variant of Concern. Since its initial identification, the variant has spread significantly to reach all provinces of South Africa. It has also been identified in countries neighboring South Africa namely; Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Zambia as well as among travelers to distant countries including, Netherlands, Thailand, Israel, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Italy, Belgium and Germany with the list of countries continually growing.
Not much is known about the variant, since it is new, but, this variant is reported to have 32 mutations (genetic changes) in the spike protein gene (the coat of the virus); more than those that have been identified in several other variants of concern including the Delta and Alpha variants. These changes, its feared could potentially render the virus more infectious, more transmissible, and harder to detect using available laboratory tests and may cause more severe disease. However, these are still under research and are yet to be well documented.
While the Omicron variant has been reported in several countries across the world, it is important to note that this variant has not been detected in Uganda.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is coordinating with a large number of researchers around the world to better understand the Omicron. Studies currently underway include;
•Assessment of transmissibility
•Severity of infection
•Performance of current available vaccines
•Performance of the available COVID19 diagnostics tests
•Effectiveness of treatments
More information will be available in the coming weeks which will be shared with the general public.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Health continues to closely monitor the evolution of the spread of the Omicron variant globally and a number of measures have been instituted to prevent the importation of the variant into the country.
Government interventions to curb the importation of the Omicron Variant
Management of travelers in and out of the country
•Intensified surveillance at points of entry; with particular emphasis at the high-volume entry points notably Entebbe International Airport and high-volume land border points like; Malaba, Busia, Mutukula, Elegu, Mpondwe and Katuna. The following is being done based on a scientific approach and after a careful analysis of the risks.
1. The Government of Uganda instituted mandatory testing of all incoming travelers upon arrival on 28th October, 2021. To-date, 48,259 samples have been tested with 228 positive cases recorded. On average, six (6) positive cases are recorded daily. Testing of all incoming passengers at Entebbe International Airport will continue, however Passengers will be allowed to proceed to their destination once their sample has been removed. We believe that the daily average of 6 cases is still a manageable number that our surveillance teams can easily track and follow up.
2. Testing of incoming travelers at other land Points of Entry will be conducted by the private laboratories at Government set rates, as Ministry of Health continues to build capacity for testing as directed by Cabinet.
3. Persons who test positive shall be tracked and put under home-based care or health facility-based isolation depending on the severity of disease. Asymptomatic cases will be placed under home based care and followed up by the Ministry of Health via the toll free line 0800-100-066 daily. The positive cases will be subject to a repeat PCR test on the seventh day.
4. Symptomatic cases requiring admission shall be managed at designated COVID-19 treatment units
5. All positive samples from travelers shall undergo genomic sequencing to enable detection of the Omicron and other variants.
6. All travelers are requested to be honest and sincere when sharing details of their addresses and contacts. This is to enable prompt follow up to prevent the spread of the virus. Giving false addresses puts the entire country at danger. The ministry of health is relying on you to help us in this exercise so that we avoid holding travelers at the airport but at the same time take precautions to avoid spread of infection.
• Samples taken from alerts or people who develop COVID19 like symptoms from communities in the country. Samples from individuals that test positive will also be subjected to genomic sequencing. This will enable us to search for presence of the omicron variant in the country or any other new variant that may develop in country.
• Increase the uptake of COVID-19 Vaccination; The vaccination campaign is being accelerated to increase coverage.
• Adherence to COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures. This is a must including mandatory use of face masks when in public, maintaining good hand hygiene at all times, avoiding crowds and keeping a distance of at least 2 meters. These cheap preventive measures help us to stop the spread of the virus. The more COVID 19 circulates among the communities, the more opportunities the virus has to change (mutate). It is therefore extremely important that we all work to reduce circulation of the COVID 19 virus to interrupt mutations.
The Government of Uganda continues to prioritise COVID-19 vaccination as a strategic intervention to control the pandemic including the effects posed by the new variants.
So far, 6,973,161 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine has been administered to the population. Of this, 5,767,857 (25%) of the 22 million eligible persons have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccines while 1,205,161 (5%) have received the second dose.
Vaccines Pipeline in the country
To-date, the Government has received a total of 17,131,090 doses through donations and direct procurement by the Government of Uganda; of which 10,523,853 doses have been distributed countrywide. Distribution of the remaining 6,607,237 doses is ongoing.
We expect an additional 15,563,650 doses of various vaccines by end of December 2021.
Accelerated Mass COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign (AMVC)
In order to increase uptake, the Ministry of Health has expanded the vaccination activity from only static sites in the health facilities to include outreaches in the communities e.g. villages, churches, taxi parks, markets etc. This is intended to bring the vaccines closer to the communities.
Therefore, against this background, the Ministry of Health commenced an Accelerated Mass COVID-19 Vaccination campaign starting with the regions with high COVID-19 infection rates. The campaign has so far covered the regions of Teso, Lango, Kigezi and Acholi sub-regions.
Opening of weekly markets
During his address to the nation on 22nd September 2021, H. E the President directed that weekly markets in the hotspot districts of Soroti, Kampala, Kalungu, Kabale, Kumi, Tororo, Gulu, Nwoya and Yumbe remain closed. He directed the Minister for Health to review their situation for safe re-opening. Since that time, intense surveillance, management of cases and vaccination against COVID19 has taken place in these areas. They are no longer hotspot areas and therefore I would like to inform the district task forces and the public that the weekly markets can now be opened but with strict adherence to SOPs and the curfew hours.
In conclusion, I would like to appeal to the population to embrace and take seriously the COVID-19 vaccination exercise. Getting vaccinated and adhering to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will protect you and your loved ones from getting infected with COVID-19. The COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective and free. It will protect our country from the devastating effects of COVID-19.
For God and my Country.
Dr Jane Ruth Aceng is the Minister of Health