Washington, DC, March 31, 2021 (PAHO) – Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa F. Etienne said 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, she said.
“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.”
In a hopeful sign, “almost all of our Member States are rolling out vaccines,” she said. “As of yesterday, 124 million people have received at least one dose of vaccines in the Americas, and more than 58 million have completed their vaccination schedules. Haiti will soon follow suit as the first shipment from COVAX arrives in the coming weeks,” she said, referring to the global alliance to ensure equitable access to vaccines.
Over the last 30 days, more than 2.5 million vaccine doses procured through COVAX have reached 17 countries due to an effort coordinated by PAHO’s Revolving Fund, the recognized procurement agent for COVAX, Dr. Etienne reported. This week, Guyana, Belize, Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago received their first shipments.
“But as we celebrate progress, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that vaccine supply continues to be our greatest challenge,” she said. “A large part of this is due to delays in production as manufacturers rush to scale up capacity. But we are also seeing far too many examples of vaccine nationalism, which limits global availability even further.”
“The current system is hard-wired for inequity and that is not acceptable,” she continued. “Vaccines should be available to all who need them, regardless of where they live.”
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.”