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Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) touts importance of protecting health workers in pandemics

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Posted: Sunday, January 16, 2022. 9:17 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F. Etienne this week emphasized the importance of protecting health workers amid the current wave of COVID-19, including ensuring their access to protective equipment and additional COVID-19 vaccine doses where available.

“We must make sure they are protected from the worst consequences of this virus,” she said in a media briefing.

In the past week, countries in the Americas reported 6.1 million new cases of COVID-19 – a 250 percent increase from the same period last year. Over the past week, the bulk of new COVID-19 cases have been reported in the US, and cases are increasing in Canada’s eastern provinces.

In the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have experienced hikes in new infections, and increases are also being seen in Jamaica, Aruba, Curacao, and Martinique.

In Central America, Belize and Panama are reporting the highest incidence of COVID and in South America, increases are particularly pronounced in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, as well as in Argentina and Paraguay, where new cases have increased by 300 percent.

Thanks to increased vaccination in the region, the COVID-19 death rate remains stable but the hike in emergency room visits and hospitalizations has left many health systems struggling to cope. Overall vaccination coverage in Latin America and the Caribbean currently stands at almost 60 percent and many countries, including Chile, Cuba, and Argentina, boast some of the highest coverage rates in the world. However, it is vital that equitable coverage remains a priority, the Director said.

While Delta continues to cause new COVID cases in the Americas, Omicron is on track to becoming the dominant strain, spreading more quickly than other detected variants, particularly in enclosed spaces. It has already been reported in 42 countries and territories in the region, and several are now experiencing widespread community transmission.

While reports suggest that it may cause less severe symptoms, Dr. Etienne warned that “this new wave of infections won’t be “mild” for our health systems, as the Omicron variant is already challenging our health workforce and limiting care for other diseases.”

The PAHO Director also highlighted the rise in re-infections. “Omicron infections can be lethal, especially for the immunocompromised and the unvaccinated,” she said, calling on individuals to keep each other safe by following public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing, getting vaccinated, and getting tested when experiencing symptoms.

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