By TANYA SMITH-CARTWRIGHT
PAN American Health Organization officials say while there is no evidence the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is currently in The Bahamas, the country should not wait until it arrives but instead use preventative tools to stop its potential spread.
During its weekly webinar yesterday, PAHO addressed the Omicron variant and measures to prevent it.
On Sunday, former Health Minister Dr Duane Sands said the country should not be caught lacking as it did in the case of the arrival of the Delta variant, but instead be proactive.
Dr Sands said if the Omicron variant is not in The Bahamas, its arrival is not far away.
PAHO official Dr Jairo Andres Mendez Rico commended The Bahamas for its aggressive send-off of samples and confirmed there is no detection of the Omicron variant in the country.
“The Bahamas has been very active in shipping samples for sequencing to either of the laboratories,” he said. “That has allowed us to follow what variants are actually circulating.
“So far, the Delta variant is circulating, not only in The Bahamas, but also in all of the Caribbean region and in the Americas. Regarding Omicron, we don’t have any evidence of detection or circulating in The Bahamas.
“We don’t have any information to say this variant (Omicron) is more dangerous. In fact, most of the cases so far have been detected in mild states. We need more evidence regarding clinical facts which will be collected during the next few weeks.”
Dr Mendez Rico gave a general timeline for samples to be processed and reminded that while variants might differ, the COVID-19 virus is still the same.
“The complete sequencing and characterisation process may take between one and two weeks to be completed,” he said. “It is a very specialised process that cannot be conducted in all laboratories.
“It is important to remember that regardless of the variant, the virus is still the same. The transmission mechanisms are still the same and therefore all the public health measures implemented to control the spread are still the most efficient tools.
“It is important to always have in mind that regardless of the variant, all the public health measures already implemented to limit the spread of the virus, including social distancing and the use of masks in closed public places and vaccines to reduce the risk of severe disease.”
Dr Rico said the public health measures are extremely efficient and therefore should be maintained and enforced.
“We don’t have to wait for Omicron to be detected to do what we have to do,” he said. “We have the tools to avoid the spread of the virus and we have to use them.”
Over the last week, there were over 782,655 new COVID-19 infections and 10,950 COVID-related deaths reported in the Americas.
Some countries in the Caribbean continue to experience jumps in COVID cases, hospitalisations, and deaths. Other, smaller islands like the Cayman Islands are also witnessing increases in COVID infections.
The Bahamas, however, is experiencing minimal cases, according to the national COVID-19 dashboard.
PAHO’s director, Dr Carissa Etienne said it is just a matter of time before Omicron spreads to more countries.
“PAHO is monitoring the spread of the Omicron variant in our region,” she said. “Omicron has already been detected in several countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico, and the United States, although it’s just a matter of time before the variant circulates in more countries.
“The arrival of a new variant doesn’t necessarily mean that things will be worse, but it does mean that we must be extra-vigilant in the short-term.”
Research is ongoing to better understand Omicron’s behaviour and the potential risks for the region.
“In the meantime, we must not forget that we are already dealing with the Delta variant, which is highly transmissible,” she said. “That’s why it’s important that countries continue to leverage the full package of public health measures that have proven effective against this virus, including hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing. And that people get vaccinated when it’s their turn.”
PAHO reports that to date, 55 percent of the citizens of the Caribbean region have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.