DR CARISSA F. ETIENNE, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). (Image: PAHO)
SASCHA WILSON

While this country recorded the highest spike in COVID deaths and infections within the Caribbean in the past month, less than one percent of T&T’s population has been vaccinated.

This was revealed by Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) Director, Dr Carissa Etienne, during PAHO’s weekly press briefing on Wednesday.

And, while this year’s infections and deaths within the region have been worse than last year, she lamented that there continues to be inequities in the availability of vaccines. 

Noting that last week, there were almost 1.2 million new COVID-19 cases and over 34,000 new deaths reported in the Americas, Dr Etienne said four of the five countries with the highest death counts in the world were in this region. 

“While COVID-19 infections are slowing across North America, localized jumps in COVID-related deaths are being reported in some states in the U.S. and Mexico, and in some provinces in Canada. In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago reported the largest spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths over the past month, while hospitalisations in Haiti continue to stretch the country’s oxygen supplies,” she reported.

With the emergence of new variants adding new complexities to epidemiological surveillance, the PAHO Director said despite the doubling—or even the tripling—of hospital beds across the region, ICU beds are full, oxygen is running low, and health workers are overwhelmed. 

She observed that while vaccines will eventually help curb the spread of the virus, progress has been uneven.

“In fact, today we’re seeing the emergence of two worlds: one quickly returning to normal, and another where recovery remains a distant future. And the differences are stark. Only one country—The United States—has fully vaccinated more than 40 percent of its population,” Dr Etienne said.

Noting that just two million people have been fully vaccinated in Central America and less than three million in the Caribbean, she said some countries—such as Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, and Honduras—are yet to administer enough doses to protect just one percent of their populations.

“The inequities in vaccination coverage are undeniable. Unfortunately, vaccine supply is concentrated in a few nations while most of the world waits for doses to trickle out. Although COVID-19 vaccines are new, this story isn’t—inequality has too often dictated who has the right to health. We can’t let this happen again,” she said.

According to Dr Etienne, this could be addressed by urgently ramping up access to vaccines in the Americas, particularly countries at greatest risk, where vaccines have been slowest to arrive and even where vulnerable populations have yet to be protected.

Despite the precarious situation in the Americas, she lamented that public health measures are being relaxed.

“Public health measures have never been so important,” Dr Etienne stressed.  “Hospitals are at their limit with almost no room to expand care in many countries. To stop this virus, we also need strong surveillance systems backed by regular testing and contract tracing. This will remain critical to controlling this virus even as vaccines coverage expands and cases drop.”

Urging countries to follow the science, the PAHO Director advised that unproven treatments must be studied in the realm of clinical trials, not promoted for political gain while patients are made more vulnerable by embracing strategies that do not work.

“If current trends continue, the health, social and economic disparities in our region will grow even larger, and it will be years before we control this virus in the Americas,” she warned.