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Pan American Health Organization asks countries to reinforce contact tracing and data systems as region reopens

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Posted: Tuesday, August 25, 2020. 7:09 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has overseen a doubling of COVID-19 infections in the region in eight weeks, from 5.3 million on July 1st to more than 12 million cases today. Deaths have also doubled in that timespan.

The health organization said today that reinforcing contact tracing and data management are key when many countries are reopening their activities.

Director, Dr. Carissa Etienne, told reporters that the basics – primary health care such as identifying cases, containing transmission and providing timely care – are central to reducing the spread of the disease: “Local health authorities have a central role to play in generating and analyzing data to adjust public health measures to the reality in each area…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 spoke of 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 6 weeks.” She was referring to the relaxation of restrictions, re-opening of schools and businesses.

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,” Dr. Etienne observed – 60 percent in the Bahamas two weeks ago, 25 percent each for Sint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, and the US Virgin Islands, due both to tourism and citizen repatriation.

“We know that countries that depend on tourism can’t remain closed indefinitely, but as they reopen, they must use all the resources available to reduce the risk for their people,” she 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% 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, neighbors and communities,” Etienne added, further warning, “If you don’t take the right steps to keep yourself safe, you’re putting others in danger.”

“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,” Etienne concluded.

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