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South Africa Sees First Local Coronavirus Transmission

A woman sanitises her hands while undergoing screening at an entrance to the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, Wednesday, March 11, 2020 where anyone entering or exiting is required to do as a precaution against the new coronavirus.

South Africa has seen its first locally transmitted case of novel coronavirus, a week after the nation reported its first case on March 5. That brings the country’s total number of confirmed cases to 17, with cases in at least five of the country’s nine provinces. Meanwhile, South Africa’s military is preparing to bring home 122 COVID-negative citizens from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus originated.

Within a week of landing in South Africa, the novel coronavirus has spread, with cases now in the double digits -- and the first confirmed case of local transmission.

That case, health authorities said Thursday, is a 32-year-old man in Free State province who came into contact with a Chinese businessman. All other reported cases in South Africa had traveled overseas before testing positive.

The nation’s Cabinet met this week to discuss the threat posed by the virus, which has now infected more than 118,000 people worldwide and was declared an pandemic this week by the World Health Organization.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that he is sharply restricting travel to the United States from more than two dozen European countries where the virus has spread.

Jackson Mthembu, a minister in the South African presidency, said South African officials have stopped short of measures like a ban on international travel.

“Cabinet has not expressed any travel bans. It would have been in the statement if there were any," Mthembu said. "And again, we can assure you that after this very important meeting of Sunday, we will be able to answer some of the questions that we not have been able to answer here on this matter.”

Officials have said they are concerned about high volumes of internal travel during the Easter holiday weekend in April, an issue that is likely to be discussed during the Sunday meeting.

Mthembu also said that 122 South African nationals would return home on Friday as part of a military-led operation to repatriate them from Wuhan, the viral epicenter.

Mthembu stressed that no members of this group have tested positive for the virus, and that officials will take precautions.

"Upon their return, all of them, the crew, everybody on the flight and those repatriated will be quarantined for a minimum of 14 days to a maximum of 21 days," Mthembu said. "During this period, the movement of people and goods in and out of the quarantine zone will be restricted. We strongly caution people against attempting to make any physical contact or attempting to visit the quarantine zone or area. Once the quarantine period ends and tests confirm no underlying COVID-19 virus infection of our compatriots, they will be released back into their respective families and communities."

Mthembu also echoed the health minister to continue to take basic hygiene measures -- such as regular hand-washing, social distancing and vigilance -- to avoid exposure to the respiratory illness.