With COVID-19 infections accelerating in the Americas and the detection of the Omicron variant in at least 42 countries and territories in the region, the Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa F. Etienne has called on countries to ensure health workers have access to protective equipment and additional COVID-19 vaccine doses where available.
As cases jump three-fold in some countries, the region’s ability to respond to the current wave depends on the personnel that keep primary health care centers, clinics and hospitals up and running.
“We must make sure they are protected from the worst consequences of this virus,” she said in a media briefing Wednesday.
Over the past week, countries in the Americas reported 6.1 million new cases of COVID-19 – a 250% increase from the same period last year.
Thanks to increased vaccination in the region, the COVID-19 death rate remains stable but the hike in emergency room visits and hospitalizations has left many health systems struggling to cope.
The PAHO Director highlighted that an additional vaccination dose will “help reinforce health workers’ ability to withstand exposure to the virus,” particularly in light of rising infections.
While Delta continues to cause new COVID cases in the Americas, Omicron is on track to becoming the dominant strain, spreading more quickly than other detected variants, particularly in enclosed spaces. It has already been reported in 42 countries and territories in the region, and several are now experiencing widespread community transmission.
While reports suggest that it may cause less severe symptoms, Dr Etienne warned that “this new wave of infections won’t be “mild” for our health systems, as the Omicron variant is already challenging our health workforce and limiting care for other diseases.”
“In smaller island states, some hospitals were already strained by cases of the Delta variant, and now more hospitals face the prospect of being overwhelmed with cases,” she added.
The PAHO Director also highlighted the rise in re-infections. “Omicron infections can be lethal, especially for the immunocompromised and the unvaccinated,” she said, calling on individuals to keep each other safe by following public health measures such as mask wearing and social distancing, getting vaccinated and getting tested when experiencing symptoms.
Overall vaccination coverage in Latin America and the Caribbean currently stands at almost 60% and many countries, including Chile, Cuba and Argentina, boast some of the highest coverage rates in the world. However, it is vital that equitable coverage remains a priority, the Director said.
“Whether we are fighting for vaccine equity, supporting our health workers, or doing our part to reduce the risk of transmission, solidarity will pave our way out of the pandemic,” she added.
Over the past week, the bulk of new COVID-19 cases have been reported in the US, and cases are increasing in Canada’s eastern provinces.
In the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have experienced hikes in new infections, and increases are also being seen in Jamaica, Aruba, Curacao and Martinique.
In Central America, Belize and Panama are reporting the highest incidence of COVID and in South America, increases are particularly pronounced in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, as well as in Argentina and Paraguay, where new cases have increased by 300%.