PAHO director Dr Carissa Etienne

More than one year after it was first identified, the COVID-19 virus is not slowing down and as new strains continue to emerge bringing even deadlier variants into play, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) is very concerned as infection rates and deaths, continue to soar.

In presenting viral statistics for the Americas during its weekly media briefing yesterday, PAHO Director Dr Carissa Etienne said during the last week – this region had recorded more than 1.2 million new cases, and approximately 34,000 COVID-related deaths.

She painted a grim picture as she revealed that, “Nearly 40 per cent of all global deaths reported last week, happened right here in the Americas.”

Declaring, “This is a clear sign that transmission if far from being controlled in our region, even as countries like the United States and Brazil are reporting reductions in cases.”

In North America – parts of northern and eastern Canada are reporting increased cases.

Focusing on the Caribbean, Etienne said, “Cuba continues to drive most of the infections in the Caribbean, although smaller countries like T&T are experiencing significant jumps.”

In St Vincent and the Grenadines, the virus continues to be a challenge for the authorities as many persons are still living in emergency shelters as frequent volcanic eruptions occur.

Etienne said they continued to see cases accelerating along national borders across Central America in countries such as Costa Rica and Honduras which borders Nicaragua; and between Guatemala and El Salvador.

In South America, cases are surging in Guyana and Bolivia which borders Brazil; and in Columbia where cases have been steadily rising in the last few weeks – Etienne said, “We expect even steeper rises following a week of protests in Columbia.”

Admitting all countries health systems are challenged to care for an influx of Covid patients even as vaccination efforts continue, she said more than 140 million people have so far been fully vaccinated in the Americas.

Referring to the recent approval by the World Health Organisation (WHO) regarding the Sinopharm vaccine, the PAHO head said, “Offers fresh confidence to countries in the region where the vaccine is already in use, but brings hope for expanding access to vaccines in the Americas.”

However, she said until enough vaccines were administered to protect everyone, persons had to continue to be vigilant and responsible.

Claiming that nearly 18 per cent of the region’s Intensive Care Units (ICU) are filled with Covid patients, Etienne said 95 per cent of the ICU beds in Chile and Peru are occupied with the majority being COVID-19 patients. In some areas in Brazil, she said there were waiting lists for ICU beds.

Indicating that rising hospitalization rates meant health workers are working overtime to juggle more patients now than ever before in the pandemic, Etienne revealed, “PAHO has helped deploy 26 emergency medical teams across 23 countries in the Americas to provide specialized care where it is most needed.”

Additionally, 400 emergency medical teams and alternative medical care areas were set up to help countries expand their capacity, which meant that over 14,000 new hospital beds and 1,500 ICU beds were added to the health care system.

But based on how Covid is spreading, Etienne estimated, “We will need 20,000 doctors and more than 30,000 nurses to manage the ICU needs of just half of the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Also concerned that life-saving supplies of oxygen are running dangerously low, the PAHO head said a typical COVID-19 patient can require up to 300,000 litres of oxygen during a 20-day hospital stay, while a critical care patient could need almost double that.

Etienne said, “It is no surprise that the rise in hospitalizations across our region, are triggering an unprecedented oxygen supply challenge throughout the Americas.”

She said countries have been forced to find urgent solutions and technical skills to provide oxygen for patients – and as PAHO maps the oxygen supplies across the region to identify where help is urgently needed – she assured that a technical expert group has been formed so countries can make investments.

To fill critical gaps, PAHO has so far donated more than 7,000 oximeters and nearly 2,000 oxygen concentrators to countries.

In addition, she said they are assisting countries to increase their oxygen production levels by making improvements to equipment and increasing their human resources capacity to ensure oxygen is easily and readily available.

Etienne said the pandemic had forced countries to act quickly to make improvements and adjustments after years of under-investment.

The 1.8 million healthcare workers who became infected with the virus since the start of the pandemic, represents 12 per cent of the estimated workforce of 15 million healthcare workers across the Americas.