Latin America no longer region with most COVID-19 cases

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A student gets her temperature checked before entering a school in Manaus, Brazil. Photo by: IMF / Raphael Alves / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — The world region with the highest COVID-19 caseload is no longer Latin America and the Caribbean, Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa Etienne announced Wednesday.

A resurgence of the disease in Europe means it has overtaken the Americas, which had led in the number of coronavirus cases for months. Over 610,000 people in the Americas have died, and more than 100,000 people are still testing positive each day, Etienne said. The U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico have reported between 850,000 and 1 million cases, she said.

Cases are plateauing in much of Central America, while new infections in the English-speaking Caribbean are mostly related to nonessential international travel, she said. But Etienne cautioned against relaxing measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing, hand-washing, contact tracing, and case isolation just because Europe has overtaken Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Misinformation is a grave threat to the health of our region. … How we communicate about COVID-19 vaccines will make or break our ability to control the pandemic.”

— Carissa Etienne, director, Pan American Health Organization

“Fighting this pandemic is not a one-time effort. It requires a sustained response, even in places where transmission is down. We must keep it up,” Etienne said in a PAHO press briefing. “The pandemic is not behind us, and the threat of new cases remains active everywhere. And that’s why countries must remain in control of the virus while we await the arrival of a safe and effective vaccine.”

PAHO is assisting the region in preparing for the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine, but Etienne said the organization will only support distribution of a drug that has proved to be “safe and effective in clinical trials, reviewed by national regulatory authorities, and recommended by the World Health Organization.”

The COVAX Facility — a mechanism coordinated by WHO; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations — is the best option to equitably facilitate access for most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Etienne said. Nearly every country in the region has joined or is in the process of joining the facility, which will support research, development, and manufacturing of vaccine candidates and negotiate pricing.

PAHO is also working with the Inter-American Development Bank to help countries access funding needed to purchase vaccine doses through COVAX once available.

Etienne stressed the importance of combating vaccine misinformation when there is an “overabundance” of coverage about it and told the media it has an important role to play to ensure people have accurate information.

“I cannot state this strongly enough: Misinformation is a grave threat to the health of our region. Insidious rumors and conspiracy theories can disrupt vaccination efforts and imperil our COVID-19 response, costing lives,” Etienne said. “How we communicate about COVID-19 vaccines will make or break our ability to control the pandemic.”

Relaxed public health measures and increased nonessential travel played a role in a second European wave, Etienne said. This example provides lessons for Latin America and the Caribbean, a region with more economic and social disparities than any other in the world. It must continue to battle COVID-19 fatigue and economic pressure caused by the pandemic, she said.

“To say that we are already over a first wave and to start looking towards a potential second wave may well be premature,” Etienne said. “The region is still very much dealing with a significant outbreak.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.