By PAVEL BAILEY
WHILE a Pan American Health Organisation official acknowledged that COVID-19 infections and deaths are declining throughout the region, she also stated that vaccine rates have “plateaued” in the Caribbean.
In yesterday’s virtual press briefing, PAHO director Dr Carissa Etienne said while there had been a spike in COVID cases connected to regional tourism, overall cases and deaths are declining in the Americas.
“As the borders have reopened and tourism has ramped up, cases have also surged in some Caribbean countries and territories, with St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, Barbados and St Martin recording the largest relative increases. Nonetheless, on a broad scale cases and deaths are declining in the Americas.”
She attributed the decrease in COVID-19 deaths and infections to the significant progress in regional vaccination, as over two thirds of people in Latin America and the Caribbean received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
However, Dr Etienne said that vaccinations have slowed down in the Caribbean and that only 30 percent of some nations’ populations have received their first dose of the COVID vaccine.
“In some areas vaccinations have slowed or plateaued. In the Caribbean fewer than 30 percent of the population completed their primary series in Haiti, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines and St Lucia. And across Latin America, Guatemala, Guyana and Paraguay have yet to reach half of their populations.”
To combat this, Dr Etienne said that PAHO has worked with regional governments and donors to distribute millions of COVID vaccines more evenly throughout the Americas.
“We now have enough supplies of vaccines to meet demand everywhere in our region. As of this month PAHO’s revolving fund has delivered more than 141 million doses of COVID vaccines in partnership with COVAX and with the support of donors.
“But we have learned that supply is just the first step, that is why PAHO is working closely with countries to also provide technical assistance, planning and communications support to fill the remaining gaps.”
In addition to emphasising the safety of the COVID vaccines, Dr Etienne said that PAHO’s upcoming vaccination week in the Americas is a perfect opportunity to get vaccinated for both COVID and other communicable diseases.
“COVID-19 vaccines work and they are very safe. They are protecting most people in our region from the worst consequences of COVID-19 infection. We need to extend this benefit to everyone in the Americas.
“There is no better time to do so than during vaccination week from April 23 to April 30 when health services across the region will be mobilised in order to get vaccines out. PAHO’s recommendation is that we first ask caretakers and heads of families to use this moment to get their loved ones vaccinated to make sure they are protected not only from COVID-19, but also other diseases.”
According to Dr Etienne, flu shots as well as tetanus and whooping cough vaccines will be offered to pregnant mothers and families as part of PAHO’s vaccination week. PAHO also encouraged countries to integrate their COVID-19 vaccine efforts with their routine immunisation systems.
As countries across the world rollback on COVID safety measures, the PAHO director discussed how the WHO still classifies the pandemic as a public health emergency of international concern.
As such, Dr Etienne said that countries should be prepared to scale up public health measures rapidly in case of another COVID spike.
“The World Health Organisation emergency committee last week declared that the COVID-19 pandemic still constitutes an extraordinary event that continues to adversely affect the health of populations around the world and poses an ongoing risk of international spread and interference with international traffic and requires a coordinated international response,” she said.
“So, we are still in a public health emergency of international concern and the expert advice that countries should be prepared to quickly scale up public health and social measures rapidly if the rates of hospitalisation and deaths start increasing again. Also, countries are advised to continue using public health measures.”