The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) has increased virus surveillance, vaccine procurement, and supply of equipment to help countries in the Caribbean and other parts of the Americas combat COVID-19.
But PAHO Director Dr Carissa Etienne warned on Wednesday that the virus is still taking a heavy toll, with more than 19.7 million cases and 475,000 deaths reported in the first three months of the year.
“All countries should be on high alert: in this pandemic, complacency leads to more cases,” Etienne said during her weekly media briefing.
“We urge our member states to reinforce surveillance and act at the first sign that cases are rising. Don’t wait until you are overwhelmed. The risks for your people and health systems are just too high.”
The PAHO director said the influx of cases is overwhelming hospitals in several countries. She made specific mention of Jamaica, where she said hospitals are operating well above capacity.
Etienne reiterated the importance of vaccinations in the COVID-19 fight.
As of Tuesday, 124 million people in the Americas have received at least one dose of vaccines, and more than 58 million have completed their vaccination schedules.
Over the last 30 days, more than 2.5 million vaccine doses procured through COVAX, the global alliance to ensure equitable access to vaccines, have reached 17 countries, due to an effort coordinated by PAHO’s Revolving Fund, the recognized procurement agent for COVAX, Etienne reported.
This week, Guyana, Belize, Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago get their first shipments and Etienne said Haiti will soon follow suit as the first shipment from COVAX arrives in the coming weeks.
“But as we celebrate progress, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that vaccine supply continues to be our greatest challenge,” Etienne said. “A large part of this is due to delays in production as manufacturers rush to scale up capacity. But we are also seeing far too many examples of vaccine nationalism, which limits global availability even further.”
“The current system is hard-wired for inequity and that is not acceptable,” she added. “Vaccines should be available to all who need them, regardless of where they live.”
During the first three months of 2021, PAHO has fought the pandemic on two other fronts.
PAHO has “significantly expanded” its COVID-19 Genomic Surveillance Network to identify and track variants of SARS-Cov-2, Etienne said. Twenty-one countries are now participating in the network, “giving us a much better picture of the variants circulating in our region.”
At least one of three variants of concern has been identified in 32 countries and territories of the Americas, according to PAHO’s most recent Epidemiological Update. The variants may increase transmissibility and virulence of the virus or decrease the effectiveness of public health and social measures or diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics, although much remains to be learned about them.