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The Americas “… not out of the woods” on COVID-19

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Posted: Thursday, February 25, 2021. 9:15 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: At Wednesday’s weekly press briefing, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F. Etienne described the Americas as the “epicenter” of the COVID-19 pandemic and called on the international community to make regional access to vaccines “a global priority.”

Dr Etienne said vaccination was not “a privilege for the few, but a right for all… Our Region needs vaccines as soon as possible, and as many as possible, to save lives.”

Some 28 countries in the region have already started providing COVID-19 vaccines through bilateral deals with manufacturers or small donations from other countries, she noted, but that is not enough when so may remain vulnerable. However, the COVAX mechanism for global access is rumbling into gear with countries receiving their first doses in the next few weeks. The initial distributions of COVAX-procured vaccines to countries in the region will cover about 2% to 2.5% of the population.

While the number of cases has been sharply reduced, especially in the United States, more than 10 million Brazilians have been infected since the first case there was reported a year ago – about a fifth of the regional population to date.

New cases have decreased dramatically in Uruguay, where rapid implementation of public health measures brought down record-high infections. In Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador decline has been less substantial, with cases down about 4% this week compared to last week.

In many countries, infection is still growing. Peru is suffering new outbreaks along its Amazonian border with Brazil and Colombia. In the Caribbean, Barbados, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Turks and Caicos are reporting a rise in new infections.

“To control the virus, we must remain vigilant and committed to the public health measures we know are effective – especially as new variants circulate in the region and may increase the burden on our health systems,” Dr Etienne said. “That is why PAHO continues to monitor the virus’s spread in our region for any changes in transmission, and why countries must continue to practice social distancing, wear masks and avoid mass gatherings.”

Dr Etienne provided assurance that COVID vaccines procured through COVAX are safe and effective. The vaccines – evaluated rigorously and thoroughly by WHO and, in many cases, by national regulatory authorities – have been shown to dramatically reduce possibilities of severe symptoms.

“Through the power of vaccines, our region has eliminated smallpox, polio, rubella and measles,” Dr. Etienne said. “With COVID-19, it’s no different: safe and effective vaccines will help us turn the tide of this pandemic, but only if we can reach those most vulnerable, no matter where they live or who they are. And we will still need to maintain the proven public health measures of testing, contact tracing, quarantine, physical distancing, hand hygiene, and masks until the pandemic recedes.”

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