DR CARISSA F. ETIENNE, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). (Image: PAHO)

The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) is warning governments in the Americas that those in their populations not yet exposed to COVID-19 are still very much at risk of the disease, and reopening economies must be done carefully and strategically.

And the PAHO Director, Dr Carissa F. Etienne, is recommending a series of measures for minimizing transmission and adapting spaces to make them as safe as they can be, as countries reopen. She also asked for continued monitoring and containment of the virus and ensuring that enough hospital beds are available.

Reopening societies before health systems are ready “would risk a handful of cases in one area becoming a full-blown outbreak,” Dr Etienne said.

“As leaders across the world face pressure to resume social and public life, it’s important that they avoid making decisions in a vacuum. Data about the virus’s spread and the state of health systems and services must guide each country’s plans to reopen, including the mix of preventive measures that should remain in place to keep people safe,” she told a media briefing today.

She said the basic principles of adjusting individual behaviour, adapting spaces, and exercising political leadership are key to making transportation, workplaces, schools and public spaces as safe as they can be for all.

The Americas reached two sombre milestones this week, Etienne said, with over half a million deaths and nearly 15 million reported infections in the region.

“Countless people in our region remain vulnerable to infection, especially large populations that have not yet been exposed,” she noted.

With respect to minimizing transmission as countries reopen, “whether it’s re-starting schools, re-opening public markets or resuming international travel, when and how we do it matters,” she advised:

“Countries must ensure they have the staff, tools and resources in place to monitor and contain the virus. They must be prepared to carry out tests, conduct contact tracing, isolate and quarantine and ensure enough hospital beds are available to care for patients who develop severe symptoms.”

Dr Etienne urged individuals to be responsible and keep a safe distance from others, a proven measure to limit the spread of COVID-19.

She added: “Public spaces must also be adapted to reduce transmission. Simple, yet important measures like offering handwashing or hand sanitizing stations, and altering layouts and hours to allow social distancing, and to limit the number of people in the same space at the same time should be the norm for now.”

“Indoors, we need to ensure adequate ventilation and limit close contact with each other. We also must continue to keep our distance outdoors,” the PAHO Director advised.

She also remarked on the challenges faced by the travel industry in limiting the spread of the virus.

“Relying on laboratory tests for travellers is expensive, hard to implement and of limited impact in controlling the international spread of the virus,” Dr Etienne observed. “We must ensure that individuals who are sick or suspect they’re sick with COVID—and their contacts—be quickly identified and isolated to minimize the chances of getting others infected, first and foremost, prior to departure, as well as after arrival.”

Noting that some countries are preparing for elections soon, Etienne said careful planning was needed to prevent spread by avoiding large gatherings and offering alternate options like voting by mail or digitally.

“Governments must lead in national efforts to ensure public health measures are in place for in-person voting and that citizens are aware of how to maintain their safety and that of others at the ballot box,” she said.