Flashback: An unidentified elderly woman receives her first shot of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at the St Joseph Enhanced Health Center.

As the United States of America (USA) and Brazil move to administer COVID-19 vaccine boosters for the elderly, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) says part of this population must have three doses to be considered fully immunized.

During yesterday’s virtual press briefing on COVID-19, Assistant Director Dr Jarbas Barbosa said PAHO only recommends booster shots for two groups of people. It includes immunocompromised people whose immune system’s defences are low. It affects your ability to fight off infections and diseases. People with cancer, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), an organ transplant, or those taking medications like corticosteroids are immunocompromised. The other group is people over 60 years old, who received inactivated virus vaccines like Sinovac and Sinopharm.

“These individuals need an additional dose to be protected from severe disease and the risk of dying from COVID-19. And their vaccination cannot be considered complete until they have received their third shot. There is not enough evidence yet to recommend booster shots for other groups who are fully immunized, especially when vaccine availability is limited and many in our region still have not received their first shot,” Barbosa said.

PAHO is aware that most countries do not have enough doses for everyone. Therefore, it advises these countries to refer to expert guidance and administer the doses to vulnerable people before moving on to other groups. Barbosa said no evidence supports that vaccinating students should be a prerequisite for reopening schools.

“The staggered approach lays the best foundation for countries to reduce the circulation of the virus and eventually get their economies and societies back on track.”

Health personnel have administered 1.1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses in the region to date. It helped increase the vaccination rate for Latin America and the Caribbean to 46 per cent. At least 32 countries have already reached the World Health Organisation’s target of having 40 per cent of their population vaccinated before the end of the year.

Barbosa said several more would arrive and surpass this goal in time. However, there are still several countries facing delays, and 19 are below 40 per cent. He said PAHO is working closely with these countries, especially Haiti, Nicaragua, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Guatemala, which are below 20 per cent coverage.

“Vaccine inequity remains the biggest barrier to reaching our coverage targets.”

The COVAX Facility, aided by PAHO’s Revolving Fund, has delivered 64.3 million doses to the region. Roughly 30 per cent or approximately 19 million doses were donations from the USA, Canada, Spain and other governments. PAHO expects more vaccines through COVAX in the coming weeks.

The Americas reported approximately 745,000 new COVID-19 cases and just over 18,000 related deaths in the past week. It was the eighth consecutive week of declining infections.

Cases and deaths are trending downward in the Caribbean.

Some countries remained stable with their weekly caseloads. Barbosa said there were concerns about the shortage of hospital capacity in T&T and the Dominican Republic. Barbados continues to report its highest rates of infections and deaths since the start of the pandemic.

North American countries reported decreases in weekly cases and death, with the United States of America (USA) and Canada experiencing lower hospitalization rates. There are similar declines across most countries in Central and South America.

While there is progress in the region, Barbosa said it was not a reason to become complacent or discontinue public health measures. Instead, it shows that they are working and everyone needs to get vaccine protection.

Barbosa said countries are publishing data about the vaccination status of those in hospitals. It showed a high percentage of COVID-19 hospitalizations are unvaccinated people.