WASHINGTON, United States (CMC) — The Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr Carissa Etienne Wednesday expressed concern at the hospitalizations and deaths of younger people which she said are surging as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic accelerates across the Americas, including the Caribbean.
“Adults of all ages, including young people, are becoming seriously ill. Many of them are dying,” Dr Etienne said during her weekly media briefing.
“In Brazil, mortality rates have doubled among those younger than 39, quadrupled among those in their 40s and tripled for those in their 50s between December 2020 and March 2021,” the Dominica-born PAHO official said, adding, “this is tragic, and the consequences are dire for our families, our societies and our future”.
She said that hospitalisation rates of people under 39 rose by more than 70 per cent in Chile during the past few months. In Brazil hospitalisations have been highest among people in their 40s.
“In some areas of the US, more people in their 20s are now being hospitalised for COVID-19 than people in their 70s,” Dr Etienne said.
“For much of the pandemic, our hospitals were filled with elderly COVID patients, many of whom had pre-existing conditions that made them more susceptible to severe disease. But look around intensive care units across our region today. You’ll see they’re filled not only with elderly patients, but also with younger people.”
She said since healthy young people are more likely to survive, they may remain in hospitals for weeks and as a result, countries must be prepared for surging hospital demand.
“If infections continue to rise at this rate, we expect that over the next three months, countries across our region will need to maintain and even increase their ICU bed capacity further,” she warned.
Dr Etienne said that countries should hire and train more health workers and specialised personnel, she said. Existing health workers should be supported “after operating in ‘crisis mode’ for so long.
“But we also can’t expand ICU capacity indefinitely. There are simply not enough health workers to hire and train in time. Which points us back to the best option: we must all recommit to a comprehensive response grounded in prevention and maintain health care for COVID-19 and other conditions,” Dr Etienne said.
She said countries must continue public health measures — social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding gatherings in closed spaces. Countries should “re-prioritise testing and contact tracing at the primary care level,” she said. And communication campaigns should be launched to remind younger people that they need to protect themselves.
The PAHO director said that while vaccines are being rolled out as fast as possible, they are not a short-term solution, noting “we can’t rely on vaccines to bring down infections when there’s not enough vaccines to go around”.
“They are one part of the comprehensive response that includes prevention through public health measures and improving readiness of health systems.”
Dr Etienne noted that nearly 40 per cent of all global COVID deaths reported last week took place “right here in our region” adding “today, more Latin American countries than ever before are reporting more than 1,000 COVID cases a day”.
She reported that infections are increasing rapidly in the Guyanas and across Argentina and Colombia, “where weekly case counts are five times higher than they were this time last year”.
In Central America, Guatemala is experiencing a significant increase in infections while Costa Rica is reporting record-high infections.
PAHO said Puerto Rico and Cuba are driving infections in the Caribbean, although cases are also rising in many smaller islands. Nearly 70 per cent of total COVID-19 cases in Anguilla have been reported in the last 10 days. Following the eruption of the La Soufriere volcano, cases are rising in St Vincent and the Grenadines among internally displaced people.
PAHO said that in total, more than 1.3 million people were infected with COVID-19 in the Americas in the last week and more than 36,000 died from COVID-related complications.