By TANYA SMITH-CARTWRIGHT
OFFICIALS at the Pan American Health Organization are happy about the uptick in COVID-19 inoculations in The Bahamas but have advised that a decision on a third booster shot would have to be made on logistics and after the vulnerable of society are vaccinated.
Dr Jarbas Barbosa, PAHO’s assistant director, spoke at the organisation’s weekly webinar, updating the region on the fight to eradicate COVID-19.
He expressed delight in the fact that The Bahamas has recently had hundreds of Bahamians flock to vaccination centres to be inoculated and views this as a sign that vaccine hesitancy in this country is dwindling.
“This is good news that the vaccine hesitancy is reducing,” Dr Barbosa said. “I think that more people are now aware about the benefits of vaccines. We have plenty (of) data from many countries in the world, showing that the risk to develop a severe case of COVID-19, to be hospitalised and then to die is much more with the unvaccinated.”
The PAHO official said the United States’ Centres for Disease Control released data that shows the risk of being hospitalised by COVID is 12 times higher among unvaccinated people when compared to vaccinated people. He said it is very important that Bahamians are now pressing forward in good numbers to get their shots.
Asked if The Bahamas was ready to start giving out the much discussed booster shots, he said it’s the country’s decision, but the priority should be making sure the elderly and those with chronic illness get their initial shots.
“The priority is still to get all the vulnerable groups vaccinated,” Dr Barbosa said. “It’s very important to go with the national plan that each country has developed following the recommendations from PAHO and WHO vaccinating the healthcare workers, the elderly people with chronic diseases. This is in order not only to get these groups protected but achieving a high immune coverage that can control transmission.
“About boosters and third doses… SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) the strategic advisory group of experts on vaccines from the region, released new recommendations two weeks ago. The recommendation is that it is important to get everyone vaccinated. So the priority is still to increase vaccinations and the access to vaccines.
“Second, the countries needed to adapt these recommendations to their reality, that their access they have to vaccines. Thirdly, it’s clear now that for people that have some conditions that can reduce the ability of the immune system to produce antibodies, they need to receive a third dose. This is part of the recommendation so these people can get protected.”
Dr Barbosa was careful to point out who would be categorised as “vulnerable” and priority to be fully vaccinated before any booster shots are considered for scheduling. He also explained that the third shot does not have to be the same vaccine brand as the first and second shot.
“This is around two to three percent of the population,” he continued. “People that have HIV/AIDS, for instance, or people that have chronic diseases and need to take medicine that reduces the immune system activity. This is for every vaccine that has EUA authorisation from WHO like AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.
“SAGE is recommending a third dose for people 60 years and (older). This third dose can be the same vaccination that was used for the first and second doses or if the country has more availability of other vaccines, they can be used.
“It is very well established now that you can have this vaccination combined with other vaccines. This is safe and this can be adapted to the situation that each country is facing.”
Over the last week, there were nearly 817,000 new COVID infections and over 18,000 COVID-related deaths reported in the Americas. This indicates a clear drop in cases and deaths as compared to the week before which PAHO reported some 1.1 million new cases and just over 24,000 COVID-related deaths.
Although the overall region is enjoying a drop in cases, there are still some countries that are experiencing increases in COVID infections. PAHO’s director, Dr Carissa Etienne provided more information on those Caribbean nations.
“The Dominican Republic and Barbados are reporting over 40 percent jumps in new cases over the last week, in fact half of Barbados’s cumulative COVID infections since the pandemic began have been reported in the last month,” Dr Etienne said. “Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, and Martinique are also seeing a jump in new infections.
“Cases remain high in Saint Martin, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, and the Cayman Islands. So, we continue to urge countries – especially those in the Caribbean – to maintain and prioritise public health measures to control the spread of COVID. These measures, along with widespread vaccinations, are the best option to control outbreaks.”
She said the good news is that 41 percent of people across Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Another 4.6 million COVAX facility vaccine doses will reach our region by the end of this week so more people can be protected.