South Africa to stop most contact tracing as 80% of population gain some immunity

A model of coronavirus is seen with South African flag displayed in the background in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on Nov. 29, 2021. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Most contact tracing and other COVID-19-related measures are coming to an end in South Africa.

With up to 80% of the population having at least some immunity through previous infections, the nation’s department of health issued a notice Thursday detailing a policy shift from containment to mitigation. 

According to Director General of Health Dr. Sandile Buthelezi, South Africa will no longer contact trace except in congregate or cluster outbreak settings.

"Containment strategies are no longer appropriate – mitigation is the only viable state," Buthelezi wrote. "Especially true of the newer, more infectious/transmissible variants like omicron."

Changes are also coming to the testing policy. People who have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus are not required to test unless they develop symptoms.

And quarantining is no longer required unless a person becomes symptomatic after being exposed to the virus.

"Quarantine has been costly to essential services and society as many people stay away from their work and thus lose their income and children miss on their schooling," Buthelezi said.

Officials justified the policy shift in several points.

Data has shown a high proportion of asymptomatic disease in South Africa and a high degree of asymptomatic or presymptomatic spread. That means only a small percentage of cases are ever diagnosed.

With testing skewed toward the country’s symptomatic minority and the presence of false-negative results, authorities said the previous policy often failed to identify the high-risk population 

And they said South Africa’s definition of high risk probably isn’t useful anymore since it doesn’t take into account aerosol spread, pre-existing immunity and the newer, more transmissible variants — like delta and omicron.

Scientists in South Africa first detected omicron in November. Western powers moved quickly to restrict travel from South Africa and its neighbors — a move frowned upon by many African nations and the World Health Organization.

The European Union, United States, Canada and Japan justified the measures by claiming it was an effort to contain the virus. But it appears to have made little impact with omicron becoming the dominant strain in several countries.

In recent weeks, the United Kingdom removed the travel restrictions placed on South Africa. The United States announced a similar move on Christmas Eve, which will take effect on New Year’s Eve.

Meanwhile, South Africa appears to have turned the corner with the omicron wave. Roughly a month after being detected, cases are trending downward in Africa’s southern tip while doing the opposite in other parts of the world.

After hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases nationwide on Dec. 16, South Africa’s cases dropped to 15,424 on Dec. 21.

This story was reported from Atlanta.