PAHO Warns Region at Risk of New COVID Wave as Variant Surges in Europe and Asia

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr. Carissa Etienne Wednesday warned that countries in the Americas, including the Caribbean, to remain vigilant and urgently close vaccination gaps as cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) surge in Europe and East Asia due to Omicron BA.2 variant.

CcodrDr. Carissa EtiennePAHO said that while COVID cases and deaths have dropped across much of the region, countries have reported more than 620,000 new cases each week. And in parts of North America and the Caribbean, where Omicron is becoming the predominant variant, new infections are beginning to rise.

Dr. Etienne said with Omicron BA.2 already detected in 8.7 percent of sequences reported from South America, “time and time again, we’ve seen how the infection dynamics in Europe are mirrored here just a few weeks later.

“We cannot ignore the risk of further COVID-19 surges. But we now know what it takes to protect our people,” the Dominican-born Dr. Etienne told the weekly PAHO press briefing.

However, with 240 million people in the Americas yet to receive a single shot of COVID-19 vaccine, vaccination gaps “will keep our region at risk during future waves.”

While more than 685 million people in the region have completed their COVID vaccination schedules, and 50 countries and territories have already begun to deliver booster doses, Dr. Etienne said “we must now redouble our efforts to ensure that our vulnerable populations receive the doses they need,” as soon as possible”.

The PAHO director also urged countries to keep testing capacity in place “so we do not go into this next wave blind,” and have the full picture of Omicron BA.2 in the region.

“This means making tests easily accessible for everyone everywhere, to prevent new outbreaks and to prepare our health systems if cases surge,” she added.

Dr. Etienne also warned that some countries and territories have scaled back public health measures prematurely, highlighting that data “is our eyes and ears into this pandemic.

“Just as we did before, we must adjust our strategies when cases rise, to save lives.”

With countries due to mark World Health Day on Thursday, under the theme “Our Planet, Our Health”, the PAHO director also highlighted the urgent need for countries to work together towards a healthier, more sustainable future.

She said with an increase in temperatures, air pollution and extreme weather events, “it is undeniable that climate change has presented significant threats to our region’s health”.

Health systems are also under threat as many hospitals were built in places vulnerable to floods, hurricanes, landslides and other extreme events.

“We are working to address this throughout the Region, but we all need to move faster. Health system resilience is not just a necessity to overcome COVID, it is an investment for our future,” Dr. Etienne added.