Test, test and test some more. Then, after that, test even more. That is the global mantra that has been urged by COVID-19 experts in the fight to prevent the spread of coronavirus. What is helping South Africa increase its testing capabilities and its reach into the rural areas is a fleet of 67 vans, 60 of which are new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 516 and 519 panel vans that are being rolled out throughout the country by the National Health Laboratory Service in partnership with the National Department of Health writes Patrick O’Leary.
It was on March 30th that President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a massive COVID-19 testing drive whereby, as part of it, 10 000 community health care workers would be deployed across the country to conduct door to door screening in South Africa’s most vulnerable communities. The idea was for them to conduct screening and not tests and then refer anyone suspected of having coronavirus to the nearest clinic or hospital. This was part of the planned large-scale screening, testing, tracing and medical management programme.
This plan was in line with international best practice to prioritise testing as a means of giving a true picture of the spread of the virus. Testing allows for the quick identification of positive cases and urgent treatment of those people – and their immediate isolation to prevent the spread of the virus. Early testing also helps to identify anyone who has come into contact with infected people so they too can be quickly treated. It also tells how many people in the country have contracted the virus and thus helps to curb the spread.
Two days after the President’s announcement – on April 1st – this drive was given added impetus when the Minister of Health, Zwelini Mkhize, announced at the launch of the new Sprinters that the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) had bought 60 new mobile sampling and testing units which would be deployed nationwide to boost the country’s capacity to test for coronavirus bringing to 67 the total number of units available for testing.
At that stage, he said a total of 47 541 tests had been completed, of which about 6 000 were performed in the public National Health Laboratory Service. The rest were performed in private laboratories.
“This is way too few considering the size of our population and other important factors such as inequality, poverty and the underlying disease burden we have. The current capacity is 5 000 tests in 24 hours in 10 laboratories countrywide. When we reach full capacity, we will be able to process 30 000 tests per 24 hours,” said Mkhize.
On that day, April 1st, the total confirmed COVID-19 cases stood at 1 380 with the number of deaths being five. As I write this, it now stands at 4 793 with 90 deaths recorded. Total tests done to date are 178 470 of which 9 827 were done in the previous 24 hours. It is obvious therefore that the testing plan is taking shape.
A record breaker
With this as background, I noticed from my ‘lockdown’ desk that the vans at the launch were Mercedes-Benz Sprinters and I suspected that, given the urgency of the need to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, this must have been quite a rushed order and delivery. I thus contacted Nadia Trimmel, vice president of Mercedes-Benz Vans to find out more and, as it turns out, not only was it a rushed order but it will no doubt go down as a record breaker for the conversion and delivery of the vans.
There were a number of parties involved in this, first being Mercedes-Benz Commercial Vehicles East Rand who were approached on March 16th by the National Health Laboratory Service to give a quote for an initial 20 Sprinter panel vans converted into mobile laboratories. A meeting was then held with the NHLS on March 18th and the order was confirmed on March 20th. It was then full go. With the backing of Mercedes-Benz Vans as well as two approved body-builders, Angelo Kater and Fitment Zone, the dealership had the first six units ready on time for the April 1st launch.
In the meantime, another order for 20 came in and then another for a further 20 bringing the total number to 60. According to Paul Jooste, brand manager of Mercedes-Benz Commercial Vehicles East Rand, as of April 17th, a total of 41 of the 60 units had been delivered leaving 19 to go at the time of writing this. The order comprised a mix of 5-ton Sprinter 516 and 519 variants.
“It was all hands on deck and we were all thrilled to deliver the first six completed, converted vans in a record time of 13 days from receipt of order to hand over. Everyone performed amazingly well,” says Trimmel.
The logistics were quite intense and luckily there were enough vans in stock between the plant in East London and the dealership. They come in from Germany. However, a special permit had to be applied for to enable the vans to be transported to Johannesburg for conversion. OneLogix was the designated transporter.
“With the nature of the intended work of these vans being critical for the control and containment of the spread of the coronavirus in South Africa, it required a special type of conversion with the equipment having to be absolutely correct and fit for purpose,” says Trimmel.
What also helped is that whereas during normal times there would be a queue at the body- builders, during this time they were only doing ‘essential’ vehicles. This helped to speed up the process.
A van in action
To see one of these vans in action, my wife and I went for a voluntary test when one of the units visited the Island Shopping complex in the Hartebeesthoek area. The people doing the screening were absolutely magnificent and dedicated. The accompanying video and photographs tell the story.
For those who might be wondering how the screening works, think of any of the weighbridges on the national route. Every truck has to enter the access lane where the truck goes over a mobile weighbridge for screening. If it shows up that the rig is legally loaded, the driver gets a green light and can carry on his way. If the initial ‘screening’ shows up as overloaded, the red light goes on and the driver has to pull into the lane for a full weighbridge check.
That’s the sort of process that was being followed at this test unit. The first step is taking your temperature and asking a few pertinent questions such as whether you’ve travelled to a high risk country, whether you’ve been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, and others. Your answers – and your temperature of course – will either give you the green light to go on your way or a red light to proceed to the next point where you will be asked more questions with your contact and other details recorded and then tested inside the van. The whole process is a quick exercise but is such an important one in terms of containing the virus.
In this case, the van was not fully equipped with the actual laboratory testing equipment so the test specimens were put into an on-board fridge where they would later be transferred to a laboratory for the full tests. The results would then be fed back to the individual when the result became available.
My temperature, by the way, was 34 degrees and my answers to the questions made me a safe bet – so long as I kept observing the basic rules of prevention which we all need to do non-stop. My wife’s temperature was 36,3 and her answers to the various screening questions also got her the green light.
What the variance in our temperatures did highlight, however, is that my wife needs to spend more time making me hot. I managed to urge the testers on site to nudge her in that direction. It was a bit of fun in among the crisis.
So, it’s a big hats off to all who were involved for these Sprinters are being used in the front-line in the fight against COVID-19. They are, without doubt, being used in one of the most critical roles any Sprinter has ever encountered. As such, there was no margin for error, complacency or delays and all parties involved rose magnificently to the occasion. And a big salute to the National Health Laboratory Service and the National Department of Health.
Go well all you lovely people and please stay safe. God Bless you all.