WASHINTON, D.C. – The Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Dr. Carissa Etienne Wednesday warned countries that it is too soon to lower their guards as the world observes the second anniversary of the coronavirus (COVID-19) being characterized as a pandemic.
“When places relax measures at the wrong moment, transmission spikes dangerously and we lose more lives,” Dr. Etienne said as public health measures are being lifted in many parts of the Americas, including the Caribbean.
The Dominican-born D. Etienne urged countries to base decisions on risk assessments and health data, and to tighten public health guidance if cases go up.
“COVID-19 is likely to be here to stay. We must learn to live with this virus, and quickly adapt to new changes,” she told the weekly PAHO news conference.
Reflecting on the past two years of the pandemic, Dr. Etienne said that the Americas has been hit harder than any other region in the world, with more than 2.6 million lives lost – half of all global deaths.
“This is a tragedy of enormous proportions, and its effects will be felt for years to come,” the PAHO Director said, warning that “the pandemic is still a threat today,” with countries experiencing record numbers of new infections during the Omicron wave, and the Americas accounting for 63 per cent of new global cases in the first two months of 2022 alone.
“We all want the pandemic to be over, but optimism alone cannot control the virus,” she said, calling for countries to keep a “finger on the pulse.”
She said countries must build on lessons from the past two years to prepare for quick action and adjust public health guidance if a new variant emerges or outbreaks happen – by ensuring continued surveillance and by making testing readily available even when transmission is low.
The PAHO Director also called for countries to address the inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, highlighting that in Latin America and the Caribbean, 248 million people have yet to receive a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, particularly those in hard to reach, rural areas and underserved communities.
“Our wins against COVID-19 show us what is possible when we work together and use the tools we know are effective,” Dr. Etienne said, referencing the advances made in the fight against COVID-19 in the past year, such as public health measures to slow the spread, safe vaccines and better treatment options.
Turning to the COVID-19 situation in the region, Dr. Etienne reported that COVID-19 cases declined by 26 per cent across the Americas in the last week and deaths also dropped by nearly 19 per cent.
However, possible reductions in testing mean that the number of reported cases may not accurately reflect the situation in some countries.
Despite the overall decline in cases and deaths in the region, new cases increased by 2.2% in the Caribbean. Bolivia and Puerto Rico also reported an increase in deaths over the past week.