(CMC) — Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr Carissa F Etienne, has expressed alarm that 570,000 health workers have been infected and 2,500 killed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) in the Americas, including the Caribbean, stating that health workers are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 in the region.
“We have the highest number of health care workers infected in the world,” Dr Etienne disclosed during a press conference at PAHO headquarters here.
“With almost 13.5 million COVID 19 cases and over 469,000 deaths reported in the Americas, including around 4,000 deaths a day in our region, the scale of this pandemic is unprecedented,” she warned. “No other group has felt this more acutely than the very men and women who make up our health workforce.”
Dr Etienne noted that “in the US and Mexico — which have some of the highest case counts in the world — health workers represent one in every seventh case”, adding that these two countries account for nearly 85 per cent of all COVID deaths among health care workers in the region.
To combat these trends, she said, “countries must ensure that health workers can do their jobs safely.
“This will require maintaining sufficient supplies of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and ensuring that everyone is effectively trained in infection control to avoid risking their own health,” she continued.
Dr Etienne also urged countries to ensure safe working conditions and fair pay for health workers.
“This is particularly important for women, the majority of our health work force, who must be supported to fully participate and lead the response to the pandemic,” she said.
The PAHO director cited several reasons for the high rates of infection in health workers in the Americas, noting that, as countries scrambled to respond to the virus, “many health workers were redirected to the outbreak response without sufficient training to protect themselves as they were treating COVID 19 patients.”
As patients surged, she said “hospitals became overcrowded and many were too slow to implement triaging protocols.
“This meant that COVID 19 patients were exposed to others who may have been seeking care for different conditions, and soon everyone carried a risk of infection, leaving health workers more vulnerable,” Dr Etienne said.
She noted that early in the pandemic, PPEs were scarce and that health workers were “forced to reuse masks and gowns, seek alternatives or forgo protection altogether to care for those in need.”
Maintaining sufficient supplies of PPE and ensuring that everyone is effectively trained in infection control to avoid risking their own health is key, Dr Etienne said.
She said PAHO has been supporting countries in building designated triage and case management zones to protect health workers and patients.
“We have also donated over 31 million masks and more than 1.4 million gloves and gowns to protect our frontline response,” she said.
Dr Etienne said months of operating under enormous pressure have also had strong mental and psychological impacts on health workers, including isolation from family and friends.
“Shockingly, dozens of health workers have been assaulted over the last few months as a result of the public’s misplaced fear, misinformation or frustration from this pandemic,” she said.
PAHO urged member states, in a recent epidemiological alert, to “strengthen the capacity of healthcare services across all levels and to equip healthcare workers with the appropriate resources and training in order to ensure an adequate and timely response to the pandemic within the healthcare system.”