The Minister of Health Jane Ruth Aceng has said that her ministry is closely monitoring 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.
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 the12 th – 20th November 2021, from Gauteng, South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong and subsequently reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on 24th November 2021.
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.
Dr. Aceng says these changes, it is 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, the minister says the variant has not been detected in Uganda.
The government has put in place interventions to curb the importation of the Omicron Variant which include;
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.
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” the minister said.
She added that testing of incoming travelers at other land Points of Entry will be conducted by the private laboratories at Government set rates, as the Ministry of Health continues to build capacity for testing as directed by Cabinet
Persons who test positive shall be tracked and put under home-based care or health facility-based isolation depending on the severity of the 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.
Symptomatic cases requiring admission shall be managed at designated COVID-19 treatment units, the minister added. Meanwhile, all positive samples from travelers shall undergo genomic sequencing to enable detection of the Omicron and other variants.
“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 in 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 the spread of infection” she said.
Dr. Aceng says samples from individuals that test positive will also be subjected to genomic sequencing. This she says, will enable them to search for the 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.
She noted that these cheap preventive measures help to stop the spread of the virus. Adding that 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 the circulation of the COVID 19 virus to interrupt mutations COVID-19 Vaccination. The Government of Uganda continues to prioritize 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 have 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.
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. The 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.”
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.
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.
The Minister appealed to the population to embrace and take seriously the COVID-19 vaccination exercise and adhere to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) which she says will protect everyone from getting infected with COVID-19.