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WHO urges increased surveillance as COVID-19 cases rise in Americas

The World Health Organisation Regional Office, Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), has called on countries to take action to increase surveillance, public health measures and vaccination as COVID-19 rates are on the rise in the Americas.

According to PAHO, no fewer than 918,000 cases were recorded last week, a 27.2 per cent increase over the previous week, and over 3,500 deaths.

Eighteen nations saw spikes in hospitalisations, while admissions to intensive care rose in 13 countries and territories

PAHO’s Director, Dr Carissa Etienne, in a statement, called on the countries in the region to make sure that health systems were prepared to cope with a potential influx of COVID-19 patients.

“The rise in cases should serve as a wake-up call. When people get sick, hospitals get overwhelmed, health systems are challenged, and the number of deaths rise,” she said.

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According to her, North America accounted for more than half of all infections in the region.

Cases there have been climbing for the past seven weeks, driven by new infections in the United States, which recorded more than 605,000 new cases, a 33 per cent increase.

The largest rise in cases occurred in Central America, where infections soared by 80 per cent, while in South America, Brazil recorded more than 120,000 cases – a nine per cent increase.

Meanwhile, Argentina saw almost 34,000 cases, which is a staggering 92 per cent rise over the previous week.  Other countries in the subregion also experienced surges, while Venezuela, Paraguay and Brazil recorded an increase in deaths.

Cases in the Caribbean have been increasing for five consecutive weeks.

Infections rose 9.3 per cent, and deaths 49 per cent, when compared with the previous week. Fourteen countries and territories also reported increases in hospitalisations.

Etienne also urged governments to take stock and act on these numbers, noting that the truth is that the virus is not going away anytime soon.

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Following a period of lower coronavirus transmission, many national and local authorities are abandoning mask mandates and physical distancing requirements and have reopened borders. However, many people in the Americas are still at risk.

Only 14 of the 51 PAHO countries and territories have reached the WHO target of vaccinating 70 per cent of their populations.

Discrepancies still exist in coverage for at-risk and vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, people with pre-existing conditions, and indigenous and afro-descendant communities

Etienne underlined that wearing masks and practicing physical distancing are still valid measures to lower virus transmission.

“Governments should continue to monitor the COVID-19 trends closely, adapt their guidance to protect the most vulnerable, and always be ready to scale up these social measures whenever there is an increase in cases or deaths.

“The public can also play a part by embracing vaccines, masks and other protective measures,’’ she said.

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Etienne has recommended that countries should not forget lessons learned over the past two years of living with the new disease.

“They must keep focus on the virus, amid a steady decline in testing.  Even in places where self-tests are available, results are not always reported to health authorities. Testing and surveillance are our eyes and ears for this pandemic and can help governments make informed decisions.

“At the same time, governments must also keep investing in their health systems to react quickly to any new developments, and to address health needs beyond COVID-19,” the PAHO chief said.

In addition, Etienne recalled that when COVID-19 vaccines were first rolled out over a year ago, the concern was over equity and ensuring enough doses to cover the most vulnerable people.

“Supply was the most significant barrier throughout 2021. That is no longer the case. We have sufficient doses to cover those most at risk, and we have an obligation to do so,” she said.

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