The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have “a devastating toll” on the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday, with Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Paraguay among the countries with the world’s highest weekly death rates.
PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said coronavirus cases are increasing in Guatemala, and infection and death rates in Cuba are at their highest point ever in the pandemic – adding that across the past week, more than 7,000 children and nearly 400 pregnant women have tested positive for the virus.
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And cases have more than doubled in the US during the last week, mainly among unvaccinated people.
“As COVID-19 continues to circulate, too many places have relaxed the public health and social measures that have proven effective against this virus,” Etienne said during a weekly news briefing. “And as people move more easily and mingle without precautions, COVID-19 follows,” she said.
During the last week, she said more than 1.26 million new cases and nearly 29,000 deaths in the Americas have been reported – an increase from last week’s figures when the region recorded 967,000 new cases and 22,000 deaths.
Amid low overall vaccination rates in the region, the highly transmissible Delta variant has been detected in 20 of the Americas’ 35 countries, she said.
While several countries such as the US, Canada and Chile have made significant headway in their vaccination campaigns, just 16.6 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated, Etienne said.
“The good news is that vaccines work against the variants, including Delta, in terms of preventing severe disease and death,” Etienne said. “The bad news is that we do not have yet enough vaccines to stop community transmission.”
Many countries in the region, such as Haiti, Honduras and Guatemala have struggled to acquire vaccine doses and have yet to make any significant progress.
The US, where 69 percent of adults have received at least one shot according to official figures, has in recent months made efforts to donate millions of vaccine doses directly to countries that need them, as well as to the COVAX vaccine sharing programme.
But amid a rise in cases and hospitalisations in several hotspots, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance on Tuesday for fully vaccinated people to return to wearing masks indoors.
According to the CDC, the US is currently averaging more than 40,000 new cases a day – a nearly 47 percent increase in new cases than a week ago. Deaths are also increasing, with a weekly average of 223 deaths, a 9 percent increase from a week prior.
Meanwhile, Etienne said that COVID responses have affected health systems and services in Latin America and the Caribbean, and disrupted the administration of critical immunisations.
She said more than 300,000 children, mostly in Brazil and Mexico, have missed out on their routine vaccinations last year, leaving them vulnerable to deadly and preventable diseases.
The administration of the first dose of measles vaccines dropped by 10 percent in eight countries in the Americas, she said.
“If we do not reverse these trends, we risk an avalanche of worsening health issues in the Americas,” Etienne said.
“We urge countries to ensure their COVID-19 responses do not leave other essential services, like routine immunisations, behind,” she added. “These services are not optional, so countries must maintain them as they control COVID-19 outbreaks.”