The appearance of new variants of the COVID-19 virus in several countries of the Americas, combined with an acceleration in the virus’s spread in virtually every country in the Americas, makes it critical to continue public health measures such as social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands often, Pan American Health Organization Director Carisa F. Etienne said today.
“Our collective ability to keep up with these measures has the power to determine the trajectory of this year. If we remain diligent, we have the power to control this virus; if we relax, make no mistake, 2021 could well be far worse than 2020,” Etienne told a press briefing today.
She said, “Since the start of this pandemic, over 39 million people across the Americas have become infected by COVID-19 and over 925,000 of them have succumbed to the virus. In the last week alone, 2.5 million people were infected with COVID-19 in our region – the highest weekly cases since the virus first reached our shores. “
PAHO’s genomics surveillance network of 21 laboratories has been tracking the spread of the virus and mutations, she highlighted, and the variant first seen circulating in the United Kingdom has now been reported in eight countries: Brazil, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, and the USA. In addition, Brazil and Canada have reported seeing another variant that was first reported in South Africa.
“At this time, there is no evidence to suggest that these variants affect patients differently, but early data does suggest that the virus can spread more easily, accelerating the threat to our health systems at a time in which they are already close to capacity,” Etienne said.
One vaccine has been approved by WHO to date and more are underway. Some countries in the region have started vaccinating health workers and vulnerable groups, but “as long as doses remain limited, we can’t rely on vaccinations to flatten the pandemic curve,” she said.
PAHO’s priorities in 2021 include ensuring equitable access to protective equipment for health workers, medications and hospital care when required, and vaccines.
“With the arrival of vaccines, we must ensure not just that doses are produced quickly, but that they’re equitably delivered and swiftly across every country – regardless of income. This will require global and regional collaboration and solidarity, with donors pitching in resources through mechanisms like the COVAX Facility,” the Director noted.
PAHO is working with all countries in the Americas to help secure the vaccine doses countries need to protect their populations. “We’re also providing support with vaccine demand planning, logistics and cold chain management, surveillance and information system strengthening, health worker training, and vaccine communication planning, among others,” Etienne said
“Luckily, our region has a strong legacy of immunization,” she emphasized, noting that through PAHO’s Revolving Fund, “Member States pool their national resources to procure vaccines and related products at the lowest price. COVID will be a challenge, but one I believe that we can meet by working together.”
In the year ahead, political leaders will face difficult choices to flatten the transmission curve. Leaders need to act transparently and proactively so that the public understands their decisions and the scientific evidence that supports them.