Let data, not passion, guide decision to reopen borders — PAHO

Let data, not passion, guide decision to reopen borders — PAHO

Senior staff reporter

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

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DIR ECTOR of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr Carissa Etienne says while the economic crunch brought on by restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is formidable, countries that are reopening must be prepared to pull back if cases resurge.

Speaking during PAHO's weekly virtual press briefing yesterday, Dr Etienne said while the personal, social and economic toll of stay-at-home orders have strained the region, and the political pressure to ease restrictions is palpable, COVID-19 cannot be left unchecked.

“As we are seeing, countries, states and cities that do not embrace preventative measures or relax restrictions too soon can be flooded with new cases. This forces us to face a hard truth — we must not abandon what works because of fatigue or political pressure; this virus does not work that way. We need to double down on measures that save lives early on and deploy them with more precision than ever before. We must let data — not passion — guide our actions,” she advised.

She said as countries that have controlled the spread of the novel coronavirus start planning to reopen, timing will be critical.

“At national or local level, we must open gradually, taking a phased approach that relies on robust surveillance, data and expanding testing and contact-tracing capacity. We also must be prepared to adjust course quickly if the epidemiological situation changes. If you have the will to relax preventive measures, you must also have the courage to pull back if infections rise,” Dr Etienne stated.

The PAHO director also said national and local governments must allow transmission dynamics to establish their timeline for reopening.

“The goal is to flatten the curve and then bend it downward significantly, before relaxing any restrictions. Transmission in your area should be going down in a sustainable way – deaths should be decreasing, and hospital bed occupancy rates should be low,” she added.

In the meantime she said PAHO is working closely with countries, and in many cases local governments, to analyse these trends to help guide decision-making.

“The key is to think both nationally and locally, and to base decisions on the latest data. The more granular our understanding of where the virus strikes, the more targeted our response will be. Reopening is not merely suspending travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders, it requires implementing a set of public health measures to track new cases and build sufficient capacity to detect and control new outbreaks. These steps include the ample access to timely testing for every suspected case and their contacts — we need tests but we also need testing results to be reported quickly to paint an accurate picture,” she pointed out.

Honing in on Caribbean territories, she said the successes in containing the virus do not mean there is space to relax measures.

“Several Caribbean countries and territories have been able to curb transmission and have not reported new cases for several weeks. Many of these islands took strict actions from the very beginning, including lockdowns and border closures. They also implemented public health measures to strengthen diagnosis, early case detection and isolation, contact tracing and quarantine of contacts, to avoid the spread. As expected, however, their economies are severely affected and they are planning to reopen their activities, but they need to remain vigilant for months to come as positive cases among repatriated nationals, as well as visitors, are being observed,” Dr Etienne declared.

She said to support effective decision-making these islands will need timely and reliable data to help them identify new outbreaks early, and to adapt responses in the face of changing scenarios.

“While an active risk of transmission remains, they must also prioritise early detection of suspected cases, laboratory testing, contact testing, and quarantine as the foundation of a targeted and sustainable strategy to control COVID-19,” she added.

Up to June 29 there have been 5.1 million confirmed cases and more than 247,000 deaths due to COVID-19 reported in the Americas.

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