By Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA (Reuters) -The Americas are not behaving like a region experiencing an ever-graver outbreak of COVID-19, the director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) warned on Wednesday.
This rise in infections is alarming but not surprising given relaxed restrictions used to curb virus transmission, PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said at a weekly news conference, adding that vaccination will not be enough to stop this wave of contagion.
“Highly transmissible variants are spreading, and social distancing measures are not as strictly observed as before,” Etienne said. “We are not acting like a region in the midst of a worsening outbreak.”.
More people have been infected with COVID-19 in the region during the last seven days than during most weeks last year, Etienne noted, while weekly deaths outnumber those of any week in 2020.
More than 1.3 million people in the Americas were infected and nearly 36,000 died last week, PAHO said.
“There are simply not enough vaccines available to protect everyone in the countries at greatest risk,” Etienne said. “We need to stop transmission by any means possible with the tools we have at hand.”
It will be a few weeks before vaccine supplies normalize, Etienne said, adding that countries should continue to administer AstraZeneca’s vaccine as adverse effects are very rare.
Leaders at every level can play a crucial role by tightening measures at the first sign of mounting infections, she said.
“We’ve noted an obvious relaxation in the implementation of public health measures,” said COVID-19 incident manager Sylvain Aldighieri. Regardless of virus variant, COVID-19 has the capacity to overwhelm health systems, he said.
Countries with significant case increases should consider lockdown measures, though if outbreaks are already visible it may be too late, PAHO health emergencies director Ciro Ugarte said.
“It’s clearly necessary to consider these measures,” Ugarte said, adding that such measures should be localized and of very limited duration.
If COVID-19 is not controlled across the world, there exists a worst-case scenario where a new vaccine-resistant variant emerges, said PAHO sub-director Jarbas Barbosa.
(Reporting by Julia Symmes CobbEditing by Bill Berkrot)