PAHO Director warns against “complacency” and reinforces calls for public health measures, surveillance, and increased access to vaccines.
Washington, D.C. July 14, 2021 (PAHO) – New COVID-19 cases spiked in Central America, the Caribbean and some South America countries last week, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F. Etienne reported.
“Cases rise when complacency sets in,” she warned during a press briefing. “We are all tired, but after experiencing successive peaks of infections in the same locations, we must break this cycle by embracing public health measures early and consistently.”
Cases are increasing in Central American countries, including El Salvador and Guatemala, where COVID deaths have also surged. New infections are spiking 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 have tripled in the weeks after reopening to cruise ships. And in Mexico and the United States, infections are rising.
But creating a “mixed picture” of the virus’s trajectory, new COVID-19 infections declined overall by nearly 20% in the Americas last week as the pandemic eased in much of South America. “COVID infections, hospitalizations and deaths are dropping across most of the continent, including in Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, and Chile,” Dr. Etienne said.
She added, however, that cases are rising in Argentina and reaching their highest levels in Colombia, “raising concerns about the health system’s ability to cope as 98% of ICU beds are already in use.”
“When variants of concern circulate,” she continued, “it’s even more important that countries step up surveillance, especially while vaccine coverage remains low.”
In total, the Americas has reported nearly 74 million COVID-19 cases and 1.9 million deaths – more than a third of COVID cases and more than 40% of deaths reported globally.
Dr. Etienne also warned that the pandemic is creating serious social and economic impacts.
“COVID-19 has not just ravaged our health systems, it has fractured social protection programs and destabilized our economies,” she said, drawing attention to a new study from the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The study reported that more than 7 million companies have closed amid the pandemic.
“We urge countries to continue prioritizing health and social safety nets as part of their COVID response and as they turn their sights to COVID recovery,” she added.
PAHO commitment to Haiti
Dr Etienne expressed particular concern about Haiti, where “thousands of people” have been displaced by violence and instability and “crowded shelters could become active hot spots for COVID transmission.”
“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 COVID response,” 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 materials. PAHO has also helped train community health workers and supported the Ministry of Health in preparing for vaccine introduction and setting up new systems to dispel rumors.
Access to vaccines
Vaccines continue to be inaccessible for many in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Money, more than public health, has determined how quickly countries can secure the tools they need to combat this virus,” Dr. Etienne said. “As countries that struck deals with vaccine manufacturers pull further ahead, vaccination coverage continues to linger in the single digits for much of our region.”
While 58% of Chile’s population are fully protected against COVID and in Uruguay 55% are protected, Paraguay and Jamaica have fully vaccinated less than 3% of their populations. Honduras and Guatemala have yet to vaccinate 1% of their populations.
Calling attention to the U.S government’s donation of nearly 12 million vaccine doses to countries in the Americas, Dr. Etienne said that more are on their way with PAHO’s help.
“These vaccines are bringing hope to countries that would otherwise have to wait months to secure even a fraction of these doses,” she said. “That’s 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 secure the doses they need, quickly.”