Americas COVID cases are down, vaccine inequity still a problem

The Pan American Health Organization says only 44 percent of people in Americas are fully vaccinated.

Despite overall decreases in COVID-19 cases and deaths, the small Caribbean islands of Saint Kitts and Nevis, Barbados, Anguilla and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines are just reaching their first pandemic peaks [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

New coronavirus cases and deaths in the Americas have reached the lowest levels in more than a year, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said, but access to COVID-19 vaccines, remains a challenge.

PAHO Assistant Director Jarbas Barbosa on Wednesday said the Americas reported more than 800,000 new infections and 18,000 deaths during the past seven days – a drastic decrease from previous weeks.

“We have reason to be optimistic, but we must remain vigilant,” Barbosa said during a regular virtual news briefing.

Many of the Caribbean islands are seeing decreases in new infections, Barbosa said, including Cuba, a nation that had for months been battling an intense outbreak of the disease.

The downward trend in COVID-19 infections comes amid advances in vaccination campaigns across the region. But, PAHO officials said, gaps remain and many countries especially, those with low vaccination rates, remain at risk of more outbreaks.

Smaller islands, such as Saint Kitts and Nevis, Barbados, Anguilla and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines are reaching their first pandemic peaks and are reporting their highest numbers of new infections and deaths.

Vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccine movements, fueled by misinformation, are also a persistent challenge in the region. This banner in a protest in Bogota, Colombia, reads, ‘No vaccine’ [Nathalia Angarita/Reuters]

That is why, Barbosa warned, it remains critical that countries continue to implement public health measures, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and limiting large gatherings.

On Wednesday, the White House said 15 million Americans have so far received booster shots, as the nation continues to unroll a programme to enhance protection against the virus nationwide.

Across the United States, 69 percent of American adults are fully vaccinated, according to the nation’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Vaccination for children aged 5-11 is also imminent, pending authorisation by the nation’s Food and Drug Administration. A CDC advisory panel is expected to meet on Tuesday to discuss the matter. Some states, Jeff Zeints, the White House’s coronavirus coordinator said, have already placed initial orders for doses.

During the regular COVID briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said new cases, hospitalisations and deaths have all been down since early September. Still, on average, 1,160 people are dying from the disease every day in the US.

“We are now heading in the right direction,” Walensky said during the briefing, “but with cases still high we must remain vigilant, heading into the colder, drier winter months.”

Meanwhile, nearly 44 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean are fully vaccinated, PAHO said.

But with more than half of the region still unprotected, vaccine inequity remains one of the biggest challenges, Barbosa said.

Chile, Uruguay and Canada have made major headway in their vaccination campaigns, and have fully protected three-quarters of their population against the disease. Meanwhile, Guatemala, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and Haiti have inoculated less than 20 percent of their populations, he said.

Barbosa said more than one million doses are expected to arrive in the region this week as part of the COVAX vaccine sharing programme, with more vaccine deliveries expected to arrive through the end of the year.

But many more doses are urgently needed to protect more people in the region from the disease.

Barbosa appealed to leaders of the G20 who are meeting in Rome for a summit during the weekend, urging them for additional vaccine donations. He added that no country is truly safe from further spread of the virus, while others are still unprotected.

He also said public health is taking centre stage at the COP26, this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference summit. The conference is scheduled to begin on Sunday in Scotland’s capital, Glasgow.

Barbosa said climate and public health are interlinked. And more than 12 million people die every from diseases associated with environmental risk factors, he said.

“Ahead of the Summit, PAHO has launched an Agenda for the Americas on Health, Environment, and Climate Change that offers countries a plan of action to reduce the burden of environmental risks on the health of our region,” Barbosa said.

Source: Al Jazeera