WASHINGTON, United States (CMC) — The director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), Dr Carissa Etienne, Wednesday urged countries in the Americas, including the Caribbean, to take action to increase surveillance, public health measures and vaccination, and to make sure that health systems are prepared to cope with a potential influx of coronavirus (COVID-19) patients.
PAHO said that COVID-19 cases are rising sharply throughout the region, estimated at 27.2 per cent over the past week.
“Last week, our region reported more than 918,000 cases,” the Dominica-born Dr Etienne told reporters, adding that “COVID-19 hospitalisations increased in 18 countries, and admissions to Intensive Care Units rose in 13 countries and territories”.
She said following a period of lower transmission, many countries have abandoned public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
But with only 14 of the 51 countries and territories in the Americas reaching the World Health Organization (WHO) goal of 70 per cent vaccination coverage, far too many people remain unprotected.
Dr Etienne said in some countries, vaccination coverage is particularly low among those at risk of severe disease, including the elderly, pregnant women, and people with pre-existing conditions.
“Each country is only as protected as the most vulnerable in their population. It is time to take stock of these numbers and act. COVID-19 is again on the rise in the Americas.”
She said despite having built “incredible networks for COVID testing and genomic surveillance” over the past two years, testing rates have steadily declined since January.
“We must keep our eyes on the virus,” she said, calling on countries to maintain and strengthen testing infrastructure and to ensure that in places where self-tests are available, results are reported to health authorities.
Countries must also maintain investments in Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and hospital capacity so that services can be quickly scaled-up to meet a potential surge in new infections, she added.
The PAHO director called on countries to be ready to reinstate public health measures in areas where cases spike, and to ensure that the most vulnerable groups are protected, particularly now that vaccine supplies are no longer a barrier.
“We have sufficient doses to cover those most at risk, and we have an obligation to do so,” she said.
Regarding the COVID-19 situation in the region, Dr Etienne noted that more than half of the new infections were reported in North America, where cases have been climbing for seven weeks, driven by a surge in the United States.
In Central America, COVID-19 cases have increased by 80 per cent, and cases have also spiked in countries across South America.
In the Caribbean, new infections have been on the rise for five consecutive weeks, with a 9.3 per cent increase in cases and a 49 per cent increase in deaths.
She said as the world’s highest health authorities meet next week for the World Health Assembly in Geneva to determine the global priorities for public health, health emergencies will remain top of the agenda.
“We must take what we learned from past emergencies to shape a future where our health systems and leadership are better prepared to face the next challenge,” she said, adding “the better prepared our health systems are, the less lives we lose and the stronger and more resilient our societies become”.