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Dr Sylvain Aldighieri

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As Caricom leaders consider a regional response to a surge in COVID-19 cases among member states, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) confirms that the highly transmissible Delta Variant is becoming the dominant strain in the Caribbean.

It is a similar pattern globally; the Delta Variant caused spikes in infections, hospitalizations and deaths in India, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States, among many other countries.

At PAHO’s virtual media briefing on COVID-19 in the Americas yesterday, Dr Sylvain Aldighieri, Incident Manager for COVID-19, said most of the Eastern Caribbean region reported the presence of the Variant of Concern. In the last two weeks, Bahamas, Guyana and Haiti were among the countries to detect the variant.

“It is important to remember that this process of displacement or replacement of strains or variants by another is an expected phenomenon which has been happening since very early in the pandemic. It occurs, among other factors, because of the emergence and circulation of variants like Delta that are better adapted to the human host as part of their evolution process,” Aldighieri said.

On Tuesday, Caricom leaders met virtually in a Special Emergency Meeting to discuss growing cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Leaders learned that since March, the Caribbean recorded more than 300,00 cases and 6,700 deaths.

Over the last week, the Americas reported 1.4 million new COVID-19 cases and 23,300 related deaths. While many parts of the world reported decreasing infection rates, the Americas reported nearly a 20 per cent increase in new infections.

Although the infection rate is slowing in the Caribbean; Grenada, Barbados, and Bermuda are reporting sharp spikes in cases. Jamaica saw its highest weekly case count since the beginning of the pandemic. In North America, infections rose by one-third due to surges in the United States of America and Canada. In Central America, infections are surging in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Belize with many hospitals saturated with COVID-19 patients.

PAHO Director Dr Carissa Etienne said the organisation is encouraged that more than 30 per cent of people in the Caribbean and Latin America got the COVID-19 vaccines. However, inequity continues. Jamaica’s vaccination coverage stands at 5 per cent while Haiti is struggling with less than 1 per cent. Noting that there was vaccine hesitancy in the Caribbean, she urged people to get the vaccines to save their lives and their families. Guyana has already taken a hard stance against vaccine hesitancy, mandating that citizens either show their vaccination cards or present negative PCR test results to access services at public and private institutions. There are fears among Caribbean citizens about the vaccines’ side effects and effectiveness against the Delta Variant, so some are holding out.

PAHO’s Assistant Director Dr Jarbas Barbosa is warning people against waiting for other vaccines. Barbosa said producers are developing studies to improve their COVID-19 vaccines. Some are trying to make a single-dose vaccine like the Johnson & Johnson or one that combines protection against the SARS/COV2 and the influenza virus.

“We have more than 100 developers that are trying to get new vaccines against COVID-19. We do not know when they will be available. Maybe it will take six months to a year, two years, so do not think twice, take the vaccine now. They will protect you against all the variants that are circulating. They can save your life and that of your family,” Barbosa said.

He stressed that all vaccines with emergency listing approval from the World Health Organisation were proven effective against the Delta Variant as it protects against severe disease, hospitalization and death.

Etienne said the pandemic also affected children’s health in other ways, such as a decline in annual checkups and routine vaccinations because of widespread disruption to health services. She said half of the young people in the region experienced increased stress or anxiety during the pandemic. However, mental health and support remain out of the reach for many.

Etienne said sexual and reproductive health services also remain disrupted across more than half the countries in the region. This helped fuel one of the biggest jumps in teenage pregnancy in more than a decade.