Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr Carissa F. Etienne, is urging regional governments to carefully analyse trends in the COVID-19 pandemic, based on what is happening in their respective countries, before moving too quickly to relax social distancing measures.
Dr Etienne warns that reducing them too soon could lead to a rapid spread of the virus, beyond the capacities of regional health care systems.
“Countries must analyse specific trends in the COVID-19 pandemic according to their unique contexts,” Dr Etienne said. “Reducing social distancing measures too soon could accelerate the spread of the virus and open the door for a dramatic upsurge or for spread to adjacent areas.”
Speaking with journalists in Washington, yesterday, the PAHO director said she also is very concerned about the situation in Haiti, noting that a large-scale outbreak there could lead to a serious humanitarian crisis.
“Apart from the difficult situation Haiti is going through, a large-scale outbreak in that country could trigger a humanitarian crisis. A much broader coalition to address a potential health crisis in this country is needed,” said Dr. Etienne.
PAHO reports that since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the Americas more than three months ago, the virus has spread to all countries in the Region, causing more than 1.4 million cases and more than 86,000 deaths, through May 4.
Dr. Etienne pointed out that in many areas of the Region the number of cases is doubling every few days, as is the case in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Mexico.
“This is a concerning indicator that tells us that transmission is still very high in those countries, and they should implement the full range of public health measures available—extensive testing, contact tracing, isolating cases and, of course, social distancing,” she stressed.
The PAHO Director noted that in North America, it is important to maintain special measures to protect the most vulnerable groups, particularly in places where the virus has not yet impacted.
“In Central America, it is imperative to increase testing capacity, while in South America there is growing concern about more cases being reported in smaller towns with limited hospital capacity,” she said.
Dr Etienne points out that in the Caribbean, most countries are at the early stages of their outbreaks, but they have implemented very strict public health measures that are having a positive impact in slowing the spread without their borders.
“Not all communities are affected in the same way; health capacity is also very diverse. Based on evidence and WHO and PAHO’s guidance, each country must adjust its approach to what is happening at the district, city or State level,” she said.
Dr. Etienne stressed that any decision should be based on data.
“Analyse the rate of new cases and deaths, evaluate the capacity of beds in hospitals and determine what it tells you about the spread of the virus,” she urged. “The social and economic pressure we are seeing now will be greater if we fail to contain the virus, remove control measures prematurely and overwhelm our health systems capacity,” she said.
Haiti – a major concern for PAHO
“We are especially worried about Haiti and I wish to sound the alarm of an impending humanitarian crisis,” said PAHO’s Director, who described the situation as “a perfect storm approaching”.
Although the country has reported only 100 cases, there are already 17,000 Haitians who have returned from the Dominican Republic, where there is community transmission, and this number is expected to reach 55,000 in two weeks.
Dr. Etienne highlighted the limited capacity of the Haitian health system.
“There are few beds for treating COVID-19, insufficient numbers of health professionals and insufficient personal protective equipment,” she said. “The security of the COVID-19 designated hospitals and the safety of community health workers is of great concern,” she added.
The PAHO Director noted that most Haitians do not have access to clean water and sanitation, and “many live in overcrowded households where quarantine and isolation are challenging”.
“There is a real risk that growing good insecurity will result in famine. Civil unrest, a difficult political situation and precarious security may further complicate the situation,” she said.
PAHO is urgently working with Haitian health authorities and other partners to strengthen preparations, including organization of health services, laboratory tests, and the availability of personal protective equipment, as well as training health workers to care for patients with COVID-19.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) works with the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of its population. Founded in 1902, it is the world’s oldest international public health agency. It serves as the Regional Office of WHO for the Americas and is the specialized health agency of the Inter-American system.