The Americas At Risk For COVID-19 Surge Due To Holiday Travel – WHO Also Calls Out Brazilian and Mexican Leaders
The US has reported 2 million new COVID-19 cases in the past 2 weeks, over the Thanksgiving holiday and in the month leading to Christmas.

WHO officials have expressed concern about yet another spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths across the Americas, following the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, and in the run-up to Christmas – echoing concerns already being expressed by United States health authorities.

The US has reported 2 million new COVID-19 cases in the past 2 weeks: a striking new record, considering the country had not recorded more than 500,000 cases a week before November. As a result, US health officials have urged those traveling nationwide to take measures to stem a further increase.

“If you’re young and you gathered, you need to be tested about five to 10 days later,” said Deborah Birx, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, in an interview with CBS News. “You need to assume that you’re infected and not go near your grandparents and aunts and others without a mask.”

With new infections from the Thanksgiving holiday, “we might see a surge superimposed upon that surge that we’re already in”, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in an interview with NBC.

The delay between the time of infection, first symptoms and actual testing will also delay nationally reported rates of infection, hospitalization and deaths, experts warned. 

“Probably what this means is three or four weeks after Thanksgiving, we will see more people die than otherwise would have,” said Michael Mina, epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We’ll see more people get infected over Thanksgiving. And unfortunately, it will probably be a lot of older people who are gathering together with their families.”

The number of cumulative cases in the Americas as of 30 November 2020. (Johns Hopkins)
WHO: Do You Really Need To Travel?

At a WHO media briefing on Monday, Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asked  the general public to carefully consider their choices over the coming holidays, saying: “The first question to ask yourself is, do you really need to travel?

“The COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we celebrate, but it doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate. The changes you make will depend on where you live.”

Dr Tedros also urged holiday shoppers to “avoid crowded shopping centres, and shop at less crowded times”. The United Kingdom recently announced that shops can stay open up to 24 hours to aid economic recovery in the Christmas build-up, following a 4-week national lockdown. If people travel, mix households or shop in person, social distancing measures should be adopted and masks should be worn, Dr Tedros added. 

In his NBC interview, Fauci gave similar advice: “If we can hang together as a country and do these kinds of things [mask wearing and physical distancing] to blunt these surges until we get a substantial proportion of the population vaccinated, we can get through this.”

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Dicrector General.


WHO Urges Brazil’s President to ‘Take It Seriously’

In a rare calling out of a head of state, Dr Tedros also said Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should take the pandemic “seriously,” citing the steep rise in active cases in Brazil, which threatens to surpass the country’s July peak if adequate action is not taken.

“I just would like to add one thing, because I want the president to take it seriously,” Dr Tedros said. The number of cases in Brazil climaxed in July, with 319,000 cases per week recorded, which then dropped to around 114,000. “It is back again to 218,000 cases per week.”

More than 200,000 cases were reported in Brazil last week, and since the first week of November, the death rate has risen from 2,500 to nearly 3,900.

Dr Tedros described the situation as “very, very worrisome”, especially when local transmissions are considered in aggregate.

“In the case of Brazil, the disease numbers are going down in a number of states but rising in others,” said Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme. “As they begin to see a rising number of cases, countries need to look at a national and sub-national level.”

He added that Brazil, and countries facing similar regional challenges, need to be “very, very clear and directed [in locating] where cases are jumping back up and what’s driving this rise in cases”.

Tailored and targeted interventions are vital in stemming local transmissions, but just as important is a country’s ability to maintain a low case rate after a successful intervention.

“Bring it down, keep it down,” said Dr Maria van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead. “We have seen so many countries that have brought transmission under control, but they haven’t been able to keep it low.” She added that countries should jump on regional outbreaks urgently “so that they don’t have the opportunity to seed into something further”.

Ryan added: “We are not just trying to get the COVID numbers down for the sake of getting COVID numbers down. We are trying to get the core with numbers down so the health system can get back to what it’s supposed to be doing.”

WHO Calls Out Mexican President’s Refusal To Wear A Mask

When asked about Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s refusal to wear a mask at public events, WHO officials reiterated the need for political leaders to set a model for citizens, especially as cases continue to rise in many countries.

The president has been notorious in his refusal to wear a mask to prevent transmitting COVID-19, even telling reporters in July that he will put on a mask “when there is no corruption. Then I’ll put on a mask and I’ll stop talking”.

“As we would say to leaders all over the world: it is very important that behavior is modeled,” Ryan said on Monday. “If we’re advising people to do things then it is really important that political leaders and society influencers are in fact modeling those behaviors [themselves].”

As of the end of November, Mexico has seen more than 1 million cases and reported more than 100,000 deaths with COVID-19.

If politicians do not adhere to COVID prevention measures and restrictions, Ryan said, the basic prevention etiquette “becomes politicized [and] that helps nobody”.

The WHO stance, he added, is that when measures are implemented they require the support of everyone in government: “Everyone in a position of authority and influence [should be] is trying their best to model those behaviors in the best way they can.”


Image Credits: Nathan Rupert, Johns Hopkins University & Medicine, WHO.

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