PAHO Director: The Americas must prepare to respond to imported cases, outbreaks and community transmission of COVID-19

PAHO Director briefs OAS Ambassadors

Washington, DC, March 6, 2020 (PAHO) – In the last ten days, 14 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have reported confirmed cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), in addition to the United States and Canada. Given the rapid arrival of COVID-19, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) urged countries to focus on containing the virus, saving lives by ensuring that health workers are protected and that the sector is prepared to care for patients, and reducing transmission through multisectoral actions and measures.

As of this afternoon, 257 cases were confirmed in ten countries and four territories in the Region (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, French Guiana, Martinique, Mexico, San Bartolome, San Martin, and the United States).

“The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean are already in the phase of responding to cases and clusters of COVID-19,” said Carissa F. Etienne, PAHO Director. “Countries need to be ready to respond to the situation we are experiencing today, with imported cases, while also preparing for tomorrow and the possibility of localized outbreaks or even transmission in the community, with the tools they have at their disposal today,” she added during an update on the situation in the Region, first to the media and then to Ambassadors to the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington D.C.

PAHO Director briefs OAS Ambassadors

PAHO is working intensively with countries that have the weakest health systems. The Organization has worked with Member States to strengthen surveillance activities to ensure the early detection of possible imported cases of COVID-19, and to ensure that health services are prepared. PAHO has also trained and equipped 29 laboratories throughout the Region to carry out diagnostic testing for COVID-19 and has also developed a tool that enables hospitals to analyze their preparedness to handle cases.

Dr. Etienne described three possible situations of COVID-19  that countries of the Region may face – simultaneously or even within different areas of larger countries: clusters of cases following importation; large outbreaks in “closed spaces” such as care homes, prisons, military camps, mass gatherings; and mass community transmission, which is more likely to occur during flu season.

To address these situations, the PAHO Director highlighted that there are three types of action that can be taken: contain the virus following its introduction through the detection and isolation of cases and contact tracing; work with the health sector to save lives through the protection of health workers and the organization of services to respond to a possible influx of critical patients; and to slow transmission through a multisectoral approach, working with the education and transportation sectors, as well as civil society and others in order to determine public measures that will be activated if necessary, including school closure, cancellation of mass gatherings, teleworking and others.

PAHO Director briefs OAS Ambassadors

“It is important to avoid an exaggerated reaction to imports and outbreaks,” said Etienne, calling on the general public and the media to do their part to reduce the risk of infection and to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 in every situation that may arise.

“It is too early to determine the future of the virus in the Region so we must be prepared to respond based on the knowledge we already have today,” said Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, Deputy Director of PAHO. “It is very likely that we will see a growth in the number of cases and the number of countries registering cases because they will receive travelers,” he said, emphasizing that “surveillance must go beyond travelers because cases will most likely be identified in health services.”

The disease is transmitted much like flu or the common cold: through face-to-face contact by sneezing or coughing, or by contact with secretions of infected people. According to the latest available information, so far the vast majority of cases (80%) are mild and recover, 20% are serious and about 2% can end in death. Deaths have mainly occurred among older people or those living with diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

“The impact of COVID-19 on health services will depend on its transmissibility and the severity at which it affects people,” said Dr. Ciro Ugarte, Director of the Health Emergencies Department at PAHO. Ugarte asked countries to activate their plans, enlist health systems in anticipating for serious infections and the additional burden on services, and to be ready for possible community transmission including non-pharmaceutical mitigation measures and retrofitting services.