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A man uses a bandana as a mask in San Fernando on Monday.

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The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) director Dr Carissa Etienne warns that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to get worse before it gets better.

And while the public tries to protect themselves by wearing cloth masks, she cautioned that high-end personal protective equipment (PPE) such as N-95 masks and gloves should be reserved for healthcare workers due to global shortages.

Without this PPE, she said, front line workers could be infected and lead to a devastating failure of a country’s health and response system. PAHO also cautions that masks by themselves cannot protect against COVID-19.

Last week, the Ministry of Health in Trinidad and Tobago changed its stance on the wearing of face masks, recommending that citizens wear cloth masks in public; keeping with recommendations coming out of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States.

However much like the ministry, PAHO assistant director Jarbas Barbosa reiterated that cloth masks by themselves do not protect against COVID-19 and should be used in conjunction with other measures such as frequent hand washing.

At this juncture of the pandemic, many citizens are aware that cloth masks are not as effective as N-95 or surgical masks. However, Dr Etienne urged the public to refrain from using these types of PPE.

“Shortages of the most basic protection equipment leave doctors, nurses and other front line workers dangerously vulnerable as they care for COVID-19 patients. Limited supplies of gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles and gowns can lead to a wave of preventable infections among health workers and threaten our ability to cope with the pandemic,” she said.

“The pandemic is accelerating rapidly and I urge governments to prepare and respond at the same speed. The number of new COVID-19 cases and fatalities is rising and we expect it to continue to rise in the region…the situation is going to get worse before it gets better,” Dr Etienne said as she contextualised what the future holds for the region citing a doubling in the numbers of new confirmed cases and fatalities within the past seven days.

“All of us need to be prepared for more difficult weeks ahead.”