COVID-19 Cases Decline In The Americas But PAHO Warns No Room For Complacency

(CMC) — Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) member countries, including several Caribbean states have been recording declines in COVID-19 infections and deaths, but PAHO Assistant Director Dr Jarbas Barbosa warned that “progress in our region is not a reason to become complacent or discontinue the public health measures that help keep us safe.”

He reported that more than 745,000 new infections and just over 18,000 deaths were reported across North and Latin America and the Caribbean during the last week.

“This is the eighth consecutive week that overall cases have declined in the region,” Dr Barbosa said during Wednesday’s weekly COVID-19 media briefing.

He indicated that in addition to the fall in infections and deaths, Canada and the United States recorded notable decreases in hospitalisations. He said that similar declines have been occurring across most Central American countries, noting that following weeks of persistent outbreaks in Belize, that nation recorded a nearly 20 per cent decrease in confirmed cases and a 60 per cent reduction in deaths.

Dr Barbosa further advised that the same trends are present in much of South America, “save for a few exceptions that we are monitoring closely”.

He pointed out, however, that Barbados continues to report its highest number of COVID-related infections and deaths since the start of the pandemic, “and there are concerning shortages of hospital capacity in the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago”.

Against that background, he said: “The progress in our region is not reason to become complacent or discontinue the public health measures that help keep us safe – quite the opposite. The decline in cases and deaths show that our approach [through public health measures and vaccinations] is working.

“The pandemic is still with us; we cannot fall into a false sense of security that the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

It is critical for all of us to stay the course until everyone is vaccinated and protected from the virus.”

The Assistant Director reported that thanks to strong immunisation systems in the region, 1.2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered and 46 per cent of the overall population are now fully vaccinated.

At least 32 countries in the region have already reached the WHO’s target of 40 per cent vaccination coverage by the end of 2021, and several more are on track. However, many continue to face delays and coverage in Haiti, Nicaragua, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Guatemala remain below 20 per cent.

“Vaccine inequity remains the biggest barrier to reaching our coverage targets,” Dr Barbosa said. Public health measures are, therefore “our best strategy for reducing COVID-19 transmission and saving lives.”

To address inequity, allocations of vaccines from COVAX are expected to accelerate in the coming weeks.

The COVAX facility, with the support of PAHO’s Revolving Fund, has already delivered 64.3 million doses to the region.

PAHO has also been working with countries to train health care workers, ensure access to vaccination, improve cold chain capacity, implement communication strategies and overcome challenges with the supply of syringes and diluents.

As more vaccines become available, Dr Barbosa urged countries to follow the latest guidance from the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) to ensure that shots go into the arms of those that need them the most.

While these decisions are ultimately up to individual countries, they “should always be based on evidence, equity, and the commitment to protect our most vulnerable,” he said.

SAGE recommends that when vaccine availability is low, the elderly, frontline workers, and people with pre-existing conditions must be prioritised.

“Once those at greatest risk are protected, the next step is to immunise a high percentage of the adult population.

Only afterwards should countries consider vaccinating younger groups,” Dr Barbosa said.

SAGE also currently recommends that a booster dose only be provided to those who are immunocompromised, and people over the age of 60 who received an inactivated virus vaccine such as Sinovac or Sinopharm.

As most countries in the region still lack sufficient vaccine doses, it is critical to follow expert guidance and maximize the impact of the doses that are available.”

Vaccination combined with effective public health measures make up the best strategy for reducing COVID-19 transmission and saving lives, Dr Barbosa added.

They “lay the best foundation for countries to reduce the circulation of the virus and eventually get their economies and societies back on track.”