The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) on Tuesday urged Caribbean countries to reinforce contact tracing and data systems as cases of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) spiked in the region of the Americas in recent weeks.
The UN health agency said that the number of new COVID-19 infections reported in the Americas has more than doubled, rising from 5.3 million at the start of July to 12 million cases currently.
“Primary healthcare should be at the centre of the response: identifying cases, acting to contain transmission and providing timely care in the community,” said PAHO Director Dr Carissa F. Etienne as she delivered her weekly briefing on COVID-19 in the Americas.
“We can’t stop all transmission, but if countries stay vigilant and expand testing and surveillance they can better identify spikes in cases and act quickly to contain them before they spread out of control.”
Dr Etienne said she was also concerned about new infections in the Caribbean as countries open their borders.
While Caribbean islands have avoided major outbreaks thanks to strong political resolve and a smart mix of public health measures, “now that non-essential air travel is resuming across the region, several countries are reporting spikes in cases,” she said.
Two weeks ago, The Bahamas observed a 60 per cent increase in cases compared to the previous week, while Sint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago and the US Virgin Islands all reported a 25 per cent jump.
“Even though there are new cases now, their health services are coping well. These examples prove that if we employ evidence-based approaches, we can eventually overcome this crisis, even in places where cases are rising,” the PAHO Director said.
“This virus is going to be with us for a while. Without a vaccine, it’s going to be with us for years. This will not be a fight we win once, but one that will go several rounds. That’s why we need to apply lessons from places that have controlled the virus and let data guide our actions.”
Dr Etienne said one of the most effective strategies is contact tracing, as used in Dominica, The Bahamas, Argentina, Guatemala and Suriname were to track new cases and limit the spread of the virus.
“This bought them time to prepare their systems for this moment, and they’ve built the necessary capacity to identify cases and trace people who may have been exposed,” she said.
PAHO also expressed concern that despite the increase in cases, countries have gradually relaxed restrictions, resumed commerce, and some are gearing up to send children back to school.
“In far too many places, there seems to be a disconnect between the policies being implemented and what the epidemiological curves tell us. This is not a good sign. Wishing the virus away will not work; it will only lead to more cases, as we’ve seen over these past six weeks,” Dr Etienne said.
“We have good tools today: data that show where the hot spots are, contact tracing protocols to slow onward transmission and public health measures that can reduce the risk of exposure. We’ll have even better tools in the future: improved tests, more effective treatments and even vaccines. National and local governments need to be strategic about how they use these tools – old and new – to achieve the desired impact,” she said.
PAHO said data from all over the Americas show that the majority of cases are reported in people between 20 and 59 years of age, but almost 70 per cent of deaths are reported in people over 60.
“This indicates that younger people are primarily driving the spread of the disease in our region. Many young people who contract the virus may not become ill or require an ICU bed, but they can spread it to others who will. This is a stark reminder that defeating COVID-19 is a shared responsibility – not only among countries and regions, but between people, neighbours and communities,” Dr Etienne said, adding “if you don’t take the right steps to keep yourself safe, you’re putting others in danger”.