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Dr Carissa Etienne

SHARLENE RAMPERSAD

[email protected]

As Caribbean countries brace for the start of what is predicted to be a vicious hurricane season, director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) Dr Carissa Etienne is urging countries to review their national hurricane response plans.

Speaking during an information session conducted via Zoom yesterday, Etienne said member states must ensure their disaster and COVID-19 responses are aligned as she said natural disasters could severely impact on the region’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus.

“As storms ravage towns and communities, they decimate sanitation systems, they contaminate water supplies and fracture the delivery of health care- three lifelines that are critical to containing the spread of COVID-19,” Etienne said.

She gave an assurance that PAHO is standing ready to assist its member states.

She said countries must ensure that they are prepared for disruptions in their healthcare systems caused by natural disasters.

“PAHO has already issued guidelines to manage emergency shelters including precautions to minimise the spread of COVID-19 by designating distinct zones to allow for social distancing, regularly disinfecting high traffic areas, and swiftly isolating individuals who show signs of illness.”

She said the organisation is working to provide emergency response supplies throughout the region.

“We are working to secure critical facilities like laboratories and quarantine and isolation centres so diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 can continue even under difficult circumstances,” Etienne said.

She said the pandemic has pushed the region to the limit- saying communities and health systems are under ‘duress.’

Etienne said the approaching winter in South American countries also poses a risk of spreading the virus as she said seasonal flu patterns have shown that viruses thrive during the winter season.

“Preparing for winter and hurricane season is a critical part of this fight, we must take action together to safeguard our progress and mitigate the spread of the virus during this time, this means redoubling our efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 so we reduce the dual burden the approaching winter and hurricane seasons might bring.”

She said this means health care systems should be strengthened by hiring additional staff and stocking up on supplies.

She said countries should also ensure that seasonal flu is closely monitored as she called for more vaccinations.

“It does not help that similar symptoms (from influenza) will make diagnosing COVID-19 even harder. As countries strengthen surveillance for COVID-19, they must similarly monitor influenza cases. Early vaccination to prevent severe cases of flu is more critical than ever, particularly for high-risk groups like health care workers, the elderly and people with chronic conditions.”

She said PAHO, through its revolving fund, has already purchased 24 million flu vaccines, most of which have already been delivered to member states.