Pandemic ‘Far From Over’ in the Americas; Vaccination Prompting a ‘False Sense of Security’ in the Region 
COVID vaccination in Brazil

Though more than 114 million people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in the Americas, the WHO Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has warned that the pandemic is far from over. 

Last week, the region reported more than 1.2 million new COVID-19 cases and nearly 34,000 COVID related deaths – nearly 40% of all global deaths reported.

“This is a clear sign that transmission is far from being controlled here in the Americas,” said PAHO Regional Director Carissa Etienne at a briefing on Wednesday. 

She noted that while countries such as the United States and Brazil were reporting a reduction in cases, other countries such as Canada, Cuba, and Trinidad and Tobago, are seeing higher rates of infections.  

The WHO’s approval of Chinese Sinopharm vaccine offers ‘fresh confidence’ to countries in the Americas who currently use the vaccine, and ‘brings hope for expanding access to vaccines’ in the region. But Etienne stressed the dire toll the pandemic has taken on health systems – rising hospitalization rates have impacted both oxygen supplies and the health workforce. 

“Until we have enough vaccines to protect everyone, our health systems and the patients that rely on them remain in danger.” 

Countries that have begun their vaccination programmes may also have a ‘false sense of security and safety that things are improving, when in reality this is not the case at all right now’, added PAHO Director of Health Emergencies Ciro Ugarte, citing the lack of oxygen supply and increased transmission of the virus in the region. 

Vaccine Donations Urgently Needed to Supplement COVAX 

Assistant Director of PAHO Jarbas Barbosa

In light of the growing spread of COVID in the region, prompting Latin America and the  Caribbean to be labeled an epicenter of the current pandemic wave, PAHO continues seek out donations from countries that ‘already have vaccines for their own needs’, said Assistant Director of PAHO Jarbas Barbosa.

Such donations, he added, will be used to supplement vaccines offered through COVAX, in addition to the Sinopharm vaccines, which will take time to arrive in the region.  

Barbosa emphasized that in the meantime, vulnerable groups must continue to be prioritized. 

“We need to continue using vaccines in a rational fashion for the most vulnerable groups.” 

Spain has already announced that they will make donations to Latin America and the Caribbean through the WHO co-sponsored global COVAX facility, and negotiations are ongoing with the United States. 

Healthcare Capacity Needs to Expand 

PAHO Regional Director Carissa Etienne

The pandemic also has underlined the need to expand healthcare capacity, scale up oxygen production, and make needed investments in equipment, maintenance, and human resources. 

“Countries are being forced to act quickly to make up for years of underinvestment,” said Etienne. 

Across the Americas, nearly 80% of intensive care units (ICU) are filled with COVID-19 patients, with the numbers ‘even more dire’ in countries such as Chile – with 95% of ICU beds occupied by COVID patients – and Brazil, which has waiting lists for ICU beds. 

Etienne estimates that based on the increasing spread of COVID-19, 20,000 doctors and more than 30,000 nurses will be needed to manage the ICU needs of ‘just half’ of the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

In response, PAHO has deployed 26 emergency medical teams across 23 countries in the Americas to provide specialized care. More than 400 emergency medical teams and alternative medical care sites have been set up to expand hospital capacity.  

Oxygen Supply Challenge in the Americas

Rising hospitalizations rates leads to lack of oxygen for COVID patients

The rise in hospitalizations has triggered an ‘unprecedented oxygen supply challenge throughout the Americas, forcing countries and governments to find urgent solutions to the supply problem. 

While hospitalized COVID patients typically require up to 300,000 liters of oxygen during a 20-day hospital stay, patients in critical care often require double that.

In response, PAHO has donated more than several thousand pulse oximeters and nearly 2000 oxygen concentrators to aid health workers in identifying when a patient needs oxygen, and to ensure that workers are equipped with the supplies to help recovery. PAHO is also working alongside Ministries of Health to ensure the availability of oxygen now and for future emergencies. 

Protecting Health Workers Through Vaccinations 

Healthcare worker in Peru preparing COVID-19 vaccines. Healthcare workers in the Americas have been hard hit by COVID.

Since the start of the pandemic, at the least 1.8 million health workers have become infected with COVID in the Americas – 12% of the estimated regional health workforce – and over 9000 have died, the majority of them women and nurses.  

Etienne urged countries to protect the 8.4 million nurses in the Americas, honoring their work, sacrifice, and contribution in commemoration of International Nurses Day, celebrated 12 May.

“Let’s invest in the nurses and ensure that they have the tools and resources that they need to do their job.” 

Quarterly reports from 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean show that 1.5 million health workers are vaccinated, but countries are urged to make the most of limited doses and prioritize health workers first.

Image Credits: Flickr: IMF/ Raphael Alves, PAHO, Flickr: UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Mersha, Andres Montesinos Malpartida/Flickr.

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