PAHO director warns of “complacency” and reinforces calls for public health measures, surveillance and increased access to vaccines.
Washington, DC, July 14, 2021 (OPS) – New cases of COVID-19 increased in Central America, the Caribbean and some countries in South America last week, reported the director of the Pan American Organization of health (OPS), Carissa F. Etienne.
“Cases increase when complacency sets in,” she warned at a press briefing. “We are all tired, but after having experienced successive spikes in infections in the same places, we must break this cycle by adopting public health measures early and systematically.”
Cases are increasing in Central American countries, including El Salvador and Guatemala, where deaths from COVID have also increased. New infections are increasing in the Caribbean, where Cuba has reported the highest number of weekly cases since the start of the pandemic. In the British Virgin Islands, cases tripled in the weeks after reopening to cruise ships. And in Mexico and the United States, infections are on the rise.
But creating a “mixed picture” of the trajectory of the virus, new COVID-19 infections globally declined by nearly 20% in the Americas last week as the pandemic eased across much of America from South. “COVID infections, hospitalizations and deaths are decreasing across much of the continent, including Brazil, Peru, Uruguay and Chile,” Dr Etienne said.
She added, however, that cases were increasing in Argentina and reaching their highest levels in Colombia, “raising concerns about the capacity of the health system to cope, as 98% of intensive care beds are already in use.”
“When worrisome variants circulate,” she continued, “it is even more important that countries step up surveillance, especially while immunization coverage remains low.”
In total, the Americas have reported nearly 74 million COVID-19 cases and 1.9 million deaths – over a third of COVID cases and over 40% of reported deaths globally.
Dr Etienne also warned that the pandemic was creating serious social and economic impacts.
“COVID-19 has not only ravaged our health systems, it has fractured social protection programs and destabilized our economies,” she said, drawing attention to a new study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The study reported that more than 7 million businesses have closed amid the pandemic.
“We urge countries to continue to prioritize health and social safety nets as part of their COVID response and as they look to the COVID recovery,” she added.
PAHO’s Commitment to Haiti
Dr Etienne said he was particularly concerned about Haiti, where “thousands of people” have been displaced by violence and instability and “overcrowded shelters could become active hot spots for the transmission of COVID”.
“PAHO, along with other partners, is committed to supporting the Haitian people in these uncertain times and urges other international organizations to join us in supporting the response to COVID,” she said.
In recent weeks, PAHO has delivered personal protective equipment to Haiti, helped expand care for COVID-19 patients, and provided thousands of tests and laboratory supplies. PAHO also helped train community health workers and supported the Ministry of Health in preparing for the vaccine introduction and setting up new systems to dispel rumors.
Access to vaccines
Vaccines remain inaccessible for many people in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Money, more than public health, has determined how quickly countries can get the tools they need to fight this virus,” said Dr Etienne. “As countries that have signed agreements with vaccine manufacturers go further, immunization coverage continues to remain single digits in much of our region. “
While 58% of the Chilean population is fully protected against COVID and in Uruguay 55% is protected, Paraguay and Jamaica have fully vaccinated less than 3% of their population. Honduras and Guatemala have not yet vaccinated 1% of their population.
Calling attention to the US government’s donation of nearly 12 million doses of vaccine to countries in the Americas, Dr Etienne said more are on the way with PAHO’s help.
“These vaccines bring hope to countries that would otherwise have to wait months to get even a fraction of these doses,” she said. “That is why we continue to urge donors and countries with vaccines to share them with our region. This remains the only way for many countries in our region to get the doses they need quickly. “