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PAHO director Dr Carissa Etienne

As people acclimatise to recent public health measures, increased COVID-19 cases and the highly transmissible Brazilian variant, South and Central American countries are running out of hospital spaces.

At the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) COVID-19 media briefing yesterday, director Dr Carissa Ettiene urged countries with extra supplies of COVID-19 vaccines to donate to the Americas. Ettiene said vaccination was crucial to vulnerable populations, including migrants and people living along borders.

Last week, the University of the West Indies detected the first Brazilian variant in this country from a sample taken from a non-national in Mayaro.

Over the past month, Trinidad and Tobago experienced an increase in infections and COVID-19 related deaths. Ettiene said that in the past week alone, more than 1.4 million people contracted COVID-19 in the region, and deaths climbed over 36,000. It meant that one of every four COVID-19 related deaths last week happened in the Americas.

She said health systems in South and Central America are still grappling with the influx of patients.

PAHO is orientating its member countries to cope with sudden increases in the consumption of critical inputs such as oxygen, intubation drugs, personal protective equipment and infusion pumps.

It comes as Canada’s infection rate surpassed US figures for the first time since the pandemic. Cases are also surging across the Caribbean, with new spikes recorded in Guadeloupe and the Bahamas. Anguilla reported more than 60 per cent of its total incidents in the last seven days, and the weekly caseload doubled in Puerto Rico.

“Nearly every country in Central America is reporting a rise in infections. Hospitalisations are at an all-time high in Costa Rica, and we expect more patients will require care as the country reported a 50 per cent jump in cases in the last week.

“Guatemala’s hospitals have also reached maximum capacity. Infections are spiking across South America. Infections in Colombia will soon reach January levels, and ICU beds are running out in major metropolitan cities like Bogota and Medellín. Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Uraguay are also reporting a rise in infections,” Ettiene said.

Health personnel in the region administered over 317 million COVID-19 vaccines in 49 countries and territories up to this week. Of these, governments used the Covax facility to purchase nearly seven million, and Ettiene said another 470,000 are en route to the region. As some PAHO members complain about the inequitable vaccine distribution, Ettiene announced that countries should receive their second Covax shipments in the coming weeks.

“While doses remain limited, most countries should see a considerable increase in doses from the first wave. Based on the allocation criteria established by the Covax Facility, nine countries in our region are starting the second deployment to be followed by others in the same sequence as for the first deployment. Nearly seven million COVID vaccines will be arriving in these countries between May and June.”

As countries begin administering second doses, Ettiene said governments should continue to prioritise health and frontline workers while protecting the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.

Because vaccines are limited, she said vaccination alone would not defeat the pandemic. Therefore, countries should continue with public health measures like hand washing and mask-wearing.