PAHO Director warns that health systems in some countries are overwhelmed and urges nations with extra vaccines to donate them to the region.
Hospitals in South and Central America are struggling to cope with a heavy influx of COVID-19 patients as the pandemic continues to surge across the region, Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa F. Etienne reported this week.
“Hospitalizations are at an all-time high in Costa Rica, and we expect more patients will require care as the country reported a 50% jump in cases in the last week,” Dr. Etienne told reporters at her weekly media briefing. “Guatemala’s hospitals have also reached maximum capacity,” she said, and at hospitals in Colombia, “ICU beds are running out in major metropolitan cities like Bogota and Medellin.”
She said that vaccine “supplies still languish behind our urgent need for more doses. That’s why we urge countries with extra doses to consider donating a significant portion of these to the Americas, where these life-saving doses are desperately needed and will be promptly used.”
The hospital problems are due partly to increased hospitalization of younger COVID-19 patients, who are less frequently vaccinated and more often exposed. They tend to be hospitalized for longer periods and, therefore, use up more resources. “PAHO is orienting our countries to plan on coping with sudden increases in the consumption of critical inputs such as oxygen, intubation drugs, personal protective equipment and infusion pumps.,” Dr. Etienne said.
Along with hospitalizations, infections are sharply rising throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
Cases are increasing in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Uruguay, Dr. Etienne said. Infections are climbing toward January levels in Colombia, she said, and rising in nearly every Central American country.
In the Caribbean, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and the Bahamas are reporting surging infections, Dr. Etienne said. “Anguilla reported more than 60% of its total cases in the last seven days, and weekly cases doubled in Puerto Rico during the same period,” she said.
“It’s no surprise then that many countries in our region have tightened public health measures by extending curfews, limiting re-openings, and imposing new stay-at-home orders,” she said. “These decisions are never easy, but based on how infections are surging, this is exactly what needs to happen. We know these measures work, and I commend leaders across our region for putting health first.”
In total 1.4 million new COVID-19 cases were reported in the Americas in the past week, while 36,000 people died of the disease, she said. “In fact, one in four COVID deaths reported worldwide last week took place right here in the Americas,” she said.
Dr. Etienne gave Latin America and Caribbean countries high marks for their distribution of the limited vaccine doses that have been available. “Most countries have done a great job following WHO and PAHO recommendations for prioritizing early doses for health workers and others on the frontlines, and saving thousands of lives by protecting the elderly and people with underlying conditions,” she said.
Many countries have invested in cold chains for vaccines requiring ultra-low temperatures. “As deliveries pick up pace, our cold chain and supply chains will be tested further, but they are ready for the challenge,” she said.
Countries have also safeguarded their populations by locating COVID-19 vaccine sites away from clinics and hospitals. They have organized drive-thru vaccination and door-to-door campaigns to reduce the chance of transmission. “Thanks to these efforts, our region has administered nearly every COVAX dose it has received thus far,” Dr. Etienne said. “Our region has demonstrated that it can successfully distribute COVID vaccines quickly and effectively.”
About 317 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the Americas, with more than 70% of them distributed in the United States.
Latin America and Caribbean nations have received nearly 7 million doses in the first allotment procured through COVAX, the global partnership to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines. More COVAX-procured doses are expected to arrive in May and June. “In the next few weeks, countries will receive their second COVAX shipments,” Dr. Etienne said. “And while doses remain limited, most countries will see a considerable increase in doses from the first wave.”
Dr. Etienne warned that while the region grapples with COVID-19, routine immunization against other vaccine-preventable diseases has lagged.
Last year, nearly 500,000 children missed vaccinations for diseases like diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. More than 300,000 missed their measles vaccinations, she said, pointing out that decline in immunization is not only due to the pandemic. “These trends aren’t new,” she said. “For some years, we’ve seen immunization coverage decline in our region.”
Dr. Etienne urged people to keep up with routine vaccinations. She also congratulated health workers, who are expected to vaccinate almost 100 million people against diseases such as measles, influenza, and human papillomavirus during the framework of this year’s April 24-30 Vaccination Week in the Americas. Health workers are expected to administer nearly 9 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines as part of Vaccination Week this year.
“Our health workers have made extraordinary personal sacrifices and persevered even under the most challenging circumstances. We owe it to them to do everything we can to keep ourselves and our communities safe – including by getting vaccinated when it’s your turn.”