PAHO urges Caribbean to be ready to respond to COVID-19

PAHO Director Dr Carissa Etienne

WASHINGTON – With the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) confirmed in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has urged countries in the region to focus on containing the virus, saving lives by ensuring that health workers are protected and the sector is prepared to care for patients, and reducing transmission through multisectoral actions and measures.

Cases of the virus which originated in Wuhan, China have been recorded in the Dominican Republic, Martinique, Saint Martin and St Barts.

And earlier this week, during an update on the situation in the region, first to the media and then to Ambassadors to the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington D.C., PAHO Director Dr Carissa Etienne said “countries need to be ready to respond to the situation we are experiencing today, with imported cases, while also preparing for tomorrow and the possibility of localized outbreaks or even transmission in the community, with the tools they have at their disposal today”.

PAHO said it is working intensively with countries that have the weakest health systems. It has worked with member states to strengthen surveillance activities to ensure the early detection of possible imported cases of COVID-19, and to ensure that health services are prepared. PAHO has also trained and equipped 29 laboratories throughout the region to carry out diagnostic testing for COVID-19 and has also developed a tool that enables hospitals to analyze their preparedness to handle cases.

Dr Etienne described three possible situations of COVID-19  that countries of the region may face – simultaneously or even within different areas of larger countries: clusters of cases following importation; large outbreaks in “closed spaces” such as care homes, prisons, military camps, mass gatherings; and mass community transmission, which is more likely to occur during flu season.

To address these situations, she highlighted that there are three types of action that can be taken: contain the virus following its introduction through the detection and isolation of cases and contact tracing; work with the health sector to save lives through the protection of health workers and the organization of services to respond to a possible influx of critical patients; and to slow transmission through a multisectoral approach, working with the education and transportation sectors, as well as civil society and others in order to determine public measures that will be activated if necessary, including school closure, cancellation of mass gatherings, teleworking and others.

“It is important to avoid an exaggerated reaction to imports and outbreaks,” said Etienne, calling on the general public and the media to do their part to reduce the risk of infection and to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 in every situation that may arise.

“It is too early to determine the future of the virus in the region so we must be prepared to respond based on the knowledge we already have today,” added Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, Deputy Director of PAHO. “It is very likely that we will see a growth in the number of cases and the number of countries registering cases because they will receive travelers,” he said, emphasizing that “surveillance must go beyond travelers because cases will most likely be identified in health services.”

COVID-19 is transmitted much like flu or the common cold: through face-to-face contact by sneezing or coughing, or by contact with secretions of infected people. According to the latest available information, so far the vast majority of cases (80 per cent) are mild and recover, 20 per cent are serious and about two per cent can end in death. Deaths have mainly occurred among older people or those living with diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

“The impact of COVID-19 on health services will depend on its transmissibility and the severity at which it affects people,” said Dr Ciro Ugarte, Director of the Health Emergencies Department at PAHO, as he asked countries to activate their plans, enlist health systems in anticipating for serious infections and the additional burden on services, and to be ready for possible community transmission including non-pharmaceutical mitigation measures and retrofitting services.

So far, there have been  more than 105,000 cases of COVID-19 globally – more than 80,000 of them in China. Globally, more than 3,580 people have died.