Young researcher places lives first

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

It no secret that healthcare workers are at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic but how do we ensure their safety?

It has been widely reported that the country has been facing a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the last few months. This equipment is crucial for healthcare workers to protect themselves from contracting COVID-19 while attending to patients.

Many sectors of society, including business, responded to the shortage by donating PPE equipment to the national Department of Health as well as provincial departments of health.

Katekani Ngobeni, a senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), has been at the forefront of advising officials on whether the protective gear is safe for use, and if it offers sufficient protection for nurses and doctors.

This is at a time when the main response to the pandemic has been guided by the implementation of preventative measures. These measures include social distancing, the regular washing of hands with soap and the wearing of facemasks.

Technical advice is essential in this period of uncertainty on the appropriate protective equipment healthcare workers should use. 

“We know that a lot of us were caught off-guard with COVID-19 and we were not prepared for the challenges,” she said in an interview with SAnews.

“So what we did as the CSIR, we offered support to all these different provinces - be it via Zoom (conference calling platform) or via the telephone. [This is] because a lot of people were panicking, especially with the issue where there was a global shortage of respirators.”

Ngobeni said it was expected that there would be some questions and fear from the provincial health departments on how to properly manage COVID-19.

“There were also questions about how to interpret all these constantly updated guidelines and the recommendations that are being reviewed and updated almost on a weekly basis.

“People are receiving donations of respirators that they have never used before and it is not properly regulated in South Africa. Therefore, people are in a state of panic to say how  do we manage this to ensure that our healthcare workers are adequately protected,” she said.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the young researcher has been providing ongoing workshops to various provincial health departments struggling to cope with the new reality brought about by COVID-19.

“We have been giving that type of technical support and guidance where provinces come and enquire about how to interpret guidelines, and how to adequately protect employees.”

She carries out these advisory responsibilities by developing and maintaining close working relationships with government departments and implementing partner organisations.

This is in order to ensure that programme activities are carried out within the recommended practice standards based on evidence and international guidelines.

Ngobeni has also facilitated a COVID-19 preparedness course for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

In February, Ngobeni presented her work at the first South African COVID-19 Conference.

Held in Pretoria, the gathering was attended by over 250 healthcare professionals who obtained free scholarships from the Health and Welfare Sector Education and Training Authority (HWSETA), co-sponsored by the Foundation for Professional Development (FPD).

“Healthcare workers need critical information about respiratory protection. Hospitals across South Africa are running out of N95 masks, which filter at least 95% of particles that are 0.3 microns or larger, including the new Coronavirus.”

In response to continued respirator shortages, many countries, including South Africa, have resorted to the use of KN95 masks.

“However, currently, there are no specific guidelines in South Africa on which criteria apply for the use of the product, including evidence demonstrating that the respirator is authentic.

“In addition, there is conflicting guidance about the application of these respiratory masks. In order to continue providing technical assistance and capacity building to healthcare workers during this lockdown period, we collaborated with the FPD to provide online training,” she said.

The 34-year-old’s work on Tuberculosis (TB) and personal protective equipment has set the foundation for her as a key player in the fight against the spread of COVID-19.

Of her other achievements, Ngobeni was selected to attend the Building Design and Engineering approaches to Airborne Infection Control training hosted by Harvard University in the United States.

In 2013, she was a runner-up for the JD Roberts Award for emerging researchers under the age of 35 to recognise and celebrate the contributions of younger colleagues within the CSIR.

As Youth Month draws to a close, the young professional has urged young people to play a role in the fight against the virus.

“There is an urgent need to address the challenges in the spread of COVID-19 in South Africa. Young people have a huge role to play during this pandemic. We need to educate ourselves and others, especially those in disadvantaged areas, about the importance of hygiene and living a healthy life.”

This as the number of COVID-19 confirmed cases in South Africa stands at over 144 000 to date. In addition, reports have pointed to healthcare workers who have tested positive for the virus to be at just below two percent.

While the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape have been identified as hotspots for COVID-19, Ngobeni was not at liberty to say which provinces have required the most technical advice on the use of PPEs.

“We are supporting all provinces but obviously there were some provinces that had more challenges than others. It is just that some provinces struggle more than other provinces or they might need more technical assistance and attention as opposed to others who might have resources and have access to such knowledge and information at their disposal,” she said.

Ngobeni and her colleagues at the CSIR form part of several work streams advising on the fight against the virus.

 “We have committees at the national Department of Health; we also form part of committees with different regulatory bodies.”

However, the journey to where she is today has not been an easy one for the young woman born in Ka’Ndengeza, which is located outside Giyani in Limpopo.

With her parents in Gauteng, Ngobeni spent life with her grandmother until the third grade. She then joined her parents in Protea Glen, Soweto and attended school at Alpha Primary school. With the relocation, Ngobeni found herself having to repeat Grade 3, due to her not understanding a word of English at the time.

To remedy the situation, her mother bought children’s books for her and in six months’ time, Ngobeni’s fluency in English had improved a great deal.

She went to high school at Lenasia Secondary School, south of Johannesburg, and found inspiration in a young female environmental health practitioner, who was a friend of her mother.

Ngobeni remembers how meeting her mother’s friend sparked the desire to want to follow in the same career path and after matriculating, she enrolled for a National Diploma in Environmental Health with the University of Johannesburg.

Instead of doing her year of community service immediately, she opted to complete her B Tech (equivalent to a degree qualification).

She then completed her year-long community service with the City of Johannesburg, after which the city appointed her as an environmental health practitioner on a full-time basis, servicing health facilities in Johannesburg.

With her career flourishing, Ngobeni moved to the Gauteng Department of Health where she took up the position of chief healthcare officer focussing on waste management in 2010.

She joined the CSIR in 2011 as an infection control specialists focusing on infection, prevention and control.

As part of her work at the CSIR, Ngobeni also hosts workshops for architects to help them design safer buildings as far as infection control is concerned.

“A chunk of our work has been focussed around TB since 2011. We have been solely focussing on TB infection control helping architects [to] design buildings and infrastructure to better create a healthier environment and protect their workers. The challenge currently is that most of our architects are not trained on infection control.”

Architects, she said, were likely to design buildings for aesthetics, not considering the health impact of those designs.

“So we go out to train architects and engineers to now start thinking about how to design a building that looks good but at the same time, start creating a healthy environment for the occupants of that building,” she said.

Since joining the CSIR, Ngobeni has pursued a Master’s degree through the University of Johannesburg, exploring the use of respiratory protection devices in low-income healthcare settings.

While much is still being discovered about COVID-19, young South Africans are putting up their hands alongside healthcare professionals, in the fight against the pandemic. -