Background: The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic caused severe disruptions to healthcare in many areas of the world, but data remain scarce for sub-Saharan Africa.
Methods: We evaluated trends in hospital admissions and outpatient emergency department (ED) and general practitioner (GP) visits to South Africa's largest private healthcare system during 2016-2021. We fit time series models to historical data and, for March 2020-September 2021, quantified changes in encounters relative to baseline.
Results: The nationwide lockdown on 27 March 2020 led to sharp reductions in care-seeking behavior that persisted for 18 months after initial declines. For example, total admissions dropped 59.6% (95% confidence interval [CI], 52.4-66.8) during home confinement and were 33.2% (95% CI, 29-37.4) below baseline in September 2021. We identified 3 waves of all-cause respiratory encounters consistent with COVID-19 activity. Intestinal infections and non-COVID-19 respiratory illnesses experienced the most pronounced declines, with some diagnoses reduced 80%, even as nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) relaxed. Non-respiratory hospitalizations, including injuries and acute illnesses, were 20%-60% below baseline throughout the pandemic and exhibited strong temporal associations with NPIs and mobility. ED attendances exhibited trends similar to those for hospitalizations, while GP visits were less impacted and have returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Conclusions: We found substantially reduced use of health services during the pandemic for a range of conditions unrelated to COVID-19. Persistent declines in hospitalizations and ED visits indicate that high-risk patients are still delaying seeking care, which could lead to morbidity or mortality increases in the future.
Keywords: COVID-19; healthcare; lockdown; social distancing; sub-Saharan Africa.
© The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.