In March 2020, the Anova Health Institute Accelerating Program Achievements to Control the Epidemic (ANOVA\APACE) program in City of Johannesburg, approached the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) with the view to enrol medical students in a COVID-19 disaster management volunteer initiative. The aim of the initiative was to provide Masters and PHD students from the WITS medical faculty and Anova interns an opportunity to acquire first-hand experience of managing an epidemic at health facility level. They were also tasked with assisting various clinics to prepare for the expected spike in Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases. A total of 10 students responded to the call and provided to volunteer at 13 clinics over a period of 2 months.
At program commencement, the students were provided comprehensive training on COVID-19. The training was to teach them about the virus, as well as prevention and protection measures. Once they were well orientated, they assisted the clinics to manage the flow of patients and step into the role of foot soldiers, as well as close and capture filing gaps.
During the second week, they started with the action deliverables of COVID-19 preparedness which entailed painting zones, setting up seating areas, and stationing sanitizers at key traffic points. “I have to say it's been a fun and educational journey and thank you for giving me the opportunity to help health facilities maintain and reduce the spread of COVID-19. It really makes me feel proud to know that I am playing a part in helping the communities and health workers during this outbreak.” Said Mosa Tladi, WITS student volunteer.
Training on disaster preparedness is critical for medical students. According to Dr Wayne Smith, Head of Disaster Medicine and Special Events at the Western Cape Department of Health: “The management of the medical effects of major incidents and disasters is one of the most difficult tasks to be performed by medical practitioners. The incidents of such events are increasing worldwide, and medical staff are often at the forefront of dealing with the effects.” Concludes Dr Smith.
The students were encouraged to contribute and support clinic staff at a professional level too. They participated in ‘clinic rounds’ with the facility managers and learnt how facilities were grouped into clusters and the effort required to coordinate teams daily. In addition, the support the students provided was critical as clinics which were overwhelmed by the reorganizing and preparation that they were undergoing in order to adequately respond to COVID-19 infections.
With support from PEPFAR, through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the ANOVA\APACE activity aims to control the HIV epidemic in Gauteng, Limpopo, and Western Cape. ANOVA\APACE works with the Department of Health (DoH) to provide technical assistance that enhances capacity in the HIV and TB continuum of care and the strengthening of the health system. Although not the focus of the ANOVA\APACE program, the program’s involvement in the response to COVID-19 is critical. Also, HIV and COVID-19 are integrally related as people with pre-existing conditions appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus. “I am thankful for the opportunity to familiarize myself with the South African health system. From the discussions and conversations, I could sense the unquestionable willingness to be part of Anova, an organization that strives towards improving implementation processes and practices, which seem to be the major barrier towards achieving optimal health outcomes.” Said Jane Scotch, WITS student volunteer.
ANOVA \APACE saw great value in investing in this initiative in order to empower future generations to better prepare for and manage disasters, with a view to assist the health system to become more agile. “The contribution of the students towards the COVID-19 preparedness was a great act of solidarity, especially since Mandela Day is around the corner. The students have shown a huge amount of dedication and we want to celebrate them for their efforts and the example they have set for others.” Said Dr Bongile Mabilane, Cluster Programme Manager Anova Health Institute.
The Anova Health Institute was awarded a PEPFAR grant in 2018 through USAID’s APACE activity (Accelerating Program Achievements to Control the Epidemic). ANOVA\APACE is aligned with PEPFAR’s aim to support South Africa’s National Strategic Plan for HIV and TB and the UNAIDS 90-90-90 goals to end AIDS. The ANOVA\APACE Program aims to accelerate and sustain epidemic control in the target districts through a data-driven, people-centred and evidence-informed approach.