Hospitalizations and deaths of younger people soar due to COVID-19, PAHO Director reports

Young adults

Countries will need to maintain or increase ICU bed capacity even further if infections continue to rise at current rates. In the past week, nearly 40% of all global COVID-19 deaths took place in the Americas.

Washington, D.C. May 5, 2021 (PAHO) – Hospitalizations and deaths of younger people are surging as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates across the Americas, said Carissa F. Etienne, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

“Adults of all ages – including young people – are becoming seriously ill. Many of them are dying,” Dr. Etienne said during her weekly media briefing.

“In Brazil, mortality rates have doubled among those younger than 39, quadrupled among those in their 40s and tripled for those in their 50s between December 2020 and March 2021,” she continued. “This is tragic, and the consequences are dire for our families, our societies and our future.”

She said that hospitalization rates of people under 39 rose by more than 70 percent in Chile during the past few months. In Brazil hospitalizations have been highest among people in their 40s. “In some areas of the U.S., more people in their 20s are now being hospitalized for COVID-19 than people in their 70s,” Dr. Etienne said.

“For much of the pandemic, our hospitals were filled with elderly COVID patients, many of whom had pre-existing conditions that made them more susceptible to severe disease,” Dr. Etienne noted. “But look around intensive care units across our region today. You’ll see they’re filled not only with elderly patients, but also with younger people.”

Since healthy young people are more likely to survive, they may remain in hospitals for weeks, she said. As a result, countries must be prepared for surging hospital demand.

“If infections continue to rise at this rate, we expect that over the next three months, countries across our region will need to maintain and even increase their ICU bed capacity further,” she warned.

Countries should hire and train more health workers and specialized personnel, she said. Existing health workers should be supported “after operating in ‘crisis mode’ for so long,” she added.

“But we also can’t expand ICU capacity indefinitely. There are simply not enough health workers to hire and train in time. Which points us back to the best option: we must all recommit to a comprehensive response grounded in prevention and maintain health care for COVID-19 and other conditions,” Dr. Etienne said.

She said countries must continue public health measures – social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding gatherings in closed spaces. Countries should “re-prioritize testing and contact tracing at the primary care level,” she said. And communication campaigns should be launched to remind younger people that they need to protect themselves.

While vaccines are being rolled out as fast as possible, they are not a short-term solution –we can’t rely on vaccines to bring down infections when there’s not enough vaccines to go around. They are one part of the comprehensive response that includes prevention through public health measures and improving readiness of health systems.” 

Turning to the pandemic’s toll across the Americas, Dr. Etienne noted, “Nearly 40% of all global COVID deaths reported last week took place right here in our region. Today, more Latin American countries than ever before are reporting more than 1,000 COVID cases a day.”

She reported that infections are increasing rapidly in the Guyanas and across Argentina and Colombia, “where weekly case counts are five times higher than they were this time last year.” In Central America, Guatemala is experiencing a significant increase in infections while Costa Rica is reporting record-high infections.

Puerto Rico and Cuba are driving infections in the Caribbean, although cases are also rising in many smaller islands. Nearly 70% of total COVID-19 cases in Anguilla have been reported in the last ten days. Following the eruption of the La Soufriere volcano, cases are rising in St. Vincent and the Grenadines among internally displaced people.

In total, more than 1.3 million people were infected with COVID-19 in the Americas in the last week and more than 36,000 died from COVID-related complications.


Daniel Epstein
Nancy Nusser
Sebastián Oliel
Nadia Peimbert-Rappaport