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Young people suffer most in Uganda’s second wave as country grapples with severe vaccine shortages

Three men wearing white hazmat suits carry a dark blue body bag into the back of an ambulance parked next to a soccer field in Uganda’s main stadium — the latest victim of the virulent second wave of Covid-19 that has hit the East African country.

Usually teeming with soccer fans, the Mandela National Stadium is now a temporary hospital for Covid patients, and although the government says it is meant for patients with mild to moderate cases, the body being removed suggests otherwise.

About 90 people are currently being treated there as the country battles a 130% increase in cases in the past two weeks, the World Health Organization (WHO) says, plunging the country back into a partial lockdown with barely any vaccines available to offer protection.

In the empty rooms around the arena, there are dozens of bed frames without mattresses squeezed next to each other in preparation for more patients. The government says it has scaled up the bed capacity to cater for 1,000 people as it anticipates the worst.

At the onset of the pandemic, the site was converted into a mobile health treatment center but in the end, only a few asymptomatic cases were sent to the stadium for monitoring.

Uganda’s second wave has changed that as infections rise, and the makeshift clinic is being used to treat cases from overstretched public hospitals.

A sharp rise in cases

According to the country’s President Yoweri Museveni, the second wave has proved deadlier than the first, which occurred in late 2020.

“In this wave, the intensity of severe and critically ill Covid-19 patients and death is higher than what we experienced in the first wave,” Museveni said on Sunday, as he announced renewed restrictions.

“In the previous wave, it took us three to four months to get to the current state of critical and severe patients, while in the second wave it has taken us less than two weeks.”

The sharp uptick of cases, believed to be fueled by different variants circulating in the country, has surprised public and private hospitals, and many have struggled to meet the constant demand for care.

“The breakthrough was almost within a week,” said Dr. Daniel Talemwa, the medical director at TMR International Hospital in Kampala. He told CNN his facility had little time to stockpile supplies as it did during the first wave.

“We started seeing numbers in the ICU rise from two to almost 10 at the same time.”

Younger population hardest hit

TMR International Hospital is a small private facility that has been over capacity for the last two weeks. It has scaled up bed capacity by 50% from eight ICU beds to 12 and is building a new unit.

But even with added bed space, its biggest challenge is a shortage of oxygen, space and medical staff to support patients. The hospital turns away at least 15 desperate and critical patients a day.

One of the few lucky patients to be admitted was 40-year-old Stephen Ntambi, who had just been taken off a life support machine when CNN met him.

Lying in bed with his wife sitting on a bench nearby, Ntambi shed what he called “tears of joy,” grateful to the doctors for saving his life when he thought he was “half-dead.”

“The way I feel now, I feel like God has given me a thousand more years,” Ntambi said, in between labored breaths.

He urged Ugandans to take the virus seriously, saying his second chance has opened his eyes to how “people shouldn’t play with their lives recklessly.”

His wife Sharon told CNN she never thought the severe form of Covid-19 her husband suffered could happen to someone of his age.

The second wave in Uganda has hit the young hard, with those aged between 30 and 39 the worst affected, according to the Ministry of Health. Those aged 20-29 have recorded the second-highest number of positive cases.

“This time around we are getting young people who were previously healthy,” said Dr. Erasmus Erebu Okello, an intensivist at TMR.

The youngest patient he treated in critical care was just 18, while the average age was 40. “I believe it’s a new strain that is more aggressive than the previous one,” Okello said.

Younger people may have become complacent and started attending large social functions after the outbreak last year, he added. Preventative measures such as social distancing may also have been ignored.

Museveni has threatened to lock down the country completely if people defy current restrictions, while hundreds have been arrested for violations, including being in clubs after the 9 p.m. curfew.

Dire vaccine shortages

Like many African countries, Uganda has severe vaccine shortages. It has fewer than 20,000 Covid-19 vaccines left and under 2% of the population has been vaccinated. The possibility of continuous, more vicious waves looms.

As of Thursday, Uganda recorded the highest single-day spike of infections with 1,438 new cases reported.

The country has reached 56,949 reported cases and 402 deaths. While those numbers are low compared to many other countries around the world, doctors fear they could rise significantly if cases are left unchecked.

With only 1.8% of the 42 million people living in Uganda having been vaccinated so far, according to the ministry of Health, the numbers threaten to keep rising.

Uganda has nearly depleted the 964,000 AstraZeneca shots it received from COVAX, WHO’s vaccine-sharing initiative for low and middle-income countries.

Additional shipments of COVAX vaccines that were expected in May have yet to arrive.

Vaccine procurement has slowed to a trickle after the COVAX facility was crippled by a halt in shipments from India, where most of the vaccines were sourced.

“If we got this vaccine at the end of the last wave, and at least were able to vaccinate 4.2 million people we targeted, the ones that are vulnerable, we would not be going through what we are going through,” Dr. Diana Atwine, Uganda’s top health official, told CNN.

“Our community would be much, much better than what we are experiencing now,” she said.

Atwine said vaccine nationalism and “hoarding” of doses by wealthier countries have made it near-impossible for countries like Uganda to procure vaccines.

Uganda expects an extra 175,000 AstraZeneca doses from COVAX to arrive on June 14. It is also awaiting a donation of 300,000 shots of China’s Sinovac vaccine.

The country wants to purchase vaccines from the US, China, Russia — or anywhere they can get them, according to President Museveni. “If I could access the vaccines, even tomorrow, we would conduct a nationwide campaign, and vaccinate,” Atwine said.

CNN Newsource

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