PAHO: Public Health Complacency Contributed to Deadly Omicron Fueled COVID-19 Surge

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Dr. Carissa F. Etienne says complacency around mask wearing, travel and indoor gatherings created a perfect opportunity for the new Omicron variant to spread rapidly throughout the region and increase deaths, with many places remaining “just as they were before.” 

maskhavA woman wearing a mask to protect herself from the coronavirus in Havana, Cuba. (Credit: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS)“Reduced public health measures were insufficient to reduce the scale of this wave,” Dominican-born Dr. Etienne told a media briefing here. “And now we’re dealing with the consequence: a rise in infections is driving a surge in deaths.” 

According to PAHO, while still very high, COVID-19 infections declined by 31 percent last week, and deaths continued to rise by 5.6 percent. 

“Undoubtedly, Omicron overtook us,” the PAHO director said. “Every time infections surge, there is a heavy toll for our families and communities,” with peaks in cases followed by peaks in deaths three weeks later. 

“COVID-19 is a preventable disease. And right now, we’re losing far too many lives,” she added. “As Omicron arrived, we didn’t use all the tools we had developed to slow the spread and prevent infections.” 

PAHO said more than half of deaths in the latest surge occurred in people over the age of 65 but added that many others occurred among those yet to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and unvaccinated people of all ages still fill up hospitals and ICU beds

“Omicron has shown that the vaccines we have at hand can protect most of us from severe illness and death,” Dr. Etienne said. 

To ensure more equitable access, PAHO said its Revolving Fund has now delivered 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in coordination with COVAX. 

The PAHO director thanked donors for contributing 30 percent of the 100-million dose milestone and urged countries “to focus on filling in critical gaps in vaccination coverage,” to ensure that at least 20 million more people are fully vaccinated, particularly high-risk groups. 

“We won’t overcome this pandemic unless we protect these groups, and then go beyond to cover everyone who is eligible,” she said. 

Dr. Etienne also highlighted that countries must be vigilant about implementing public health measures quickly. 

She said they must adjust hospital systems to accommodate new surges, while ensuring health care workers have the tools they need to safely treat COVID-19 patients. 

“We need to activate our responses more rapidly to keep pace with the current wave and stay ahead of future surges of this very fast, very serious virus,” Dr. Etienne urged. 

With up to 202 people dying every hour due to this latest surge, “inaction is not an option,” she said, stating that countries of the Americas, including the Caribbean, reported 3.3 million new cases and more than 34,000 COVID-19 related deaths. 

Dr. Etienne said, in North America, the United States recorded the highest number of deaths in the sub-region – 17,000. 

She said countries in Central America and in the Caribbean reported a surge in COVID-19 deaths, as well as an increase in hospitalizations, reaching 19 percent in some countries and territories of the Eastern Caribbean. 

In South America, the PAHO director said deaths in Brazil reached the highest numbers ever, setting a record for this wave.