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PAHO steps up COVID-19 surveillance and vaccine procurement to fight surging infections

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Posted: Wednesday, March 31, 2021. 9:39 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F. Etienne said today PAHO has increased virus surveillance, vaccine procurement, and supply of equipment to help countries in the Americas combat the COVID-19 pandemic. But the virus continues to take a heavy toll, with 19.7 million cases and 475,000 deaths reported in the first three months of 2021.

“All countries should be on high alert: in this pandemic, complacency leads to more cases,” Dr. Etienne said during her weekly media briefing. “We urge our Member States to reinforce surveillance and act at the first sign that cases are rising. Don’t wait until you are overwhelmed. The risks for your people and health systems are too high.”

Nearly all member states of PAHO have rolled out vaccines, with 124 million having received at least one dose and more than 58 million both doses. Haiti is next on the COVAX vaccine shipment list after Guyana, Belize, Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago received their first shipments. 2.5 million doses have been distributed through COVAX.

During the first three months of 2021, PAHO has fought the pandemic on two other fronts.

PAHO has “significantly expanded” its COVID-19 Genomic Surveillance Network to identify and track variants of SARS-Cov-2, Dr. Etienne said. Twenty-one countries are now participating in the network, “giving us a much better picture of the variants circulating in our region.”

At least one of three variants of concern have been identified in 32 countries and territories of the Americas, according to PAHO’s most recent Epidemiological Update. The variants may increase transmissibility and virulence of the virus or decrease the effectiveness of public health and social measures or diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics, although much remains to be learned about them.

In addition, PAHO has helped procure more than 3 million units of medical masks for regional countries. “And we are actively supporting governments every day to find solutions for oxygen and other supply limitations,” she said.

Still, until vaccines are more widely available, preventive measures are the region’s best option, Dr. Etienne said, urging countries to follow public health measures, such as physical distancing, masks, hand hygiene, and avoiding mixing with people from other households.

“Without preventive action, our region could face an upsurge even larger than the last one,” she said. “So let me be as clear as possible. My main guidance for places experiencing surges in transmission can be summarized in two words: Stay Home.”

“We all have a role to play in following the public health measures put in place to protect our communities,” she continued. “This is how we save lives. This is how we beat COVID-19.”

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