DIRECTOR of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Dr Carissa Etienne has noted that countries across the region have continued to resume near normal life even with the imminent risk to populations of the raging spread of COVID-19.
Speaking at a weekly virtual press conference yesterday from Washington, DC, United States, Dr Etienne pointed out that in the past week COVID-19 deaths in the Americas reached over half a million. She noted that in the Caribbean many large islands, including Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, are witnessing dramatic spikes in cases while areas in some South American countries have seen a tenfold increase in their infection numbers.
“This is a sad reminder that countless people in our region remain vulnerable to infections, especially large populations which have not yet been exposed. A safe and effective vaccine that can be manufactured and delivered at scale is not around the corner, yet our region has started to resume near normal social and public life at a time when COVID-19 still requires major control interventions,” she stated.
Dr Etienne said the reasons for doing so are understandable as the functions of normal life are still necessary and global commerce cannot be restricted indefinitely.
But she cautioned that regional governments must be clear that opening up too early gives the virus more room to spread and put populations at greater risk.
“This doesn’t mean that we must reverse course. The social and economic realities facing countries are more pressing than ever. It does mean, however, that we must approach daily life in a new way that reduces risk and places health at the centre of every decision that we make and policy that we implement,” she said, pointing to the reopening of schools, and resumption of international travel. “When and how we do it matters,” she said.
The PAHO director stressed that governments must maintain the same level of commitment to prevention control as they did before they lifted restrictions.
“National and local authorities have a duty to provide clear evidence-based guidance and to ensure that individuals and businesses adhere to it. We saw this leadership earlier on when many countries implemented lockdowns and restrictions gatherings. We need the same level of commitment as these measures are lifted,” she said.
She emphasised that decisions around international travel presents particular challenge for the region as “when people travel between countries so does the virus. We are seeing this in the Caribbean where several countries that had virtually no cases experience spikes as tourism resumes,” she noted.
The director pointed out that relying on lab tests as a prerequisite to travel is expensive, hard to implement, and provides limited control in preventing the international spread of the virus.
She said countries should, therefore, ensuring that sick persons and their contacts be quickly identify and isolated to minimise spread prior to departure and after arrival.
Dr Etienne advised also that as governments come under pressure to resume public life, it’s important that they avoid making decisions in silos as they respond.
“Countries must ensure that they have the staff, the tools and the resources in place to monitor and contain the virus”. She stressed that among other things countries must ensure that they have enough hospital beds to care for patients who develop severe symptoms.
“Let’s not fool ourselves. If our health systems are not prepared it is not the time to reopen. Doing so would risk a handful of cases in one area becoming a full blown outbreak,” she stated.
According to PAHO, up to the beginning of this month there was a 230 per cent increase in COVID-19 cases in the Caribbean, compared with its June report.