Latin America still has time to prepare before worst of COVID-19, PAHO says

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Dr. Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization. Photo by: Juan Manuel Herrera / OAS / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — Latin America and the Caribbean still have “a window of time to act” to prepare for and enact measures against the worst of the spread of COVID-19, Pan American Health Organization Director Dr. Carissa Etienne said Tuesday.

“What we do today will determine the capacity of our health systems to save lives tomorrow.”

— Dr. Carissa Etienne, director, Pan American Health Organization

Many countries are now reporting community transmission, Etienne said, marking a new phase for the pandemic in the region. She said the current rates of coronavirus infection in the Americas — which had more than 180,000 confirmed cases as of Monday — and the speed of spread mean there is time to prepare critical health infrastructure for a likely spike in cases, including in the number of people who will need hospitalization.

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“But only if we act now — what we do today will determine the capacity of our health systems to save lives tomorrow,” Etienne said at a digital press briefing Tuesday. “Countries need to make domestic investments now to strengthen their health systems and services, building resilient health systems that have the capacity to detect, respond, and the surge capacity to address the threat while at the same time ensuring the provision of health services for all those that need them.”

These investments must be in facility spaces, beds, medical equipment, and health professionals, she said. PAHO is working with governments to bolster the public health response, with the organization’s country offices “working around the clock” with national health staff, Etienne said. Last week, PAHO convened regulatory authorities in the region to leverage available information and resources to ensure the safety and quality of medical products, particularly tests.

Etienne stressed that closures of schools and businesses, cancellations of mass gatherings, and the imposition of social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions are vital to stopping the spread of COVID-19. Every country must decide what measures they need to take and for how long, Etienne said, noting that — based on the experiences of other nations that are weeks or months ahead of the Americas in their battle against the virus — such restrictions will likely need to be in place for another two or three months.

“They are the only way to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by too many sick people in too short a period of time,” Etienne said. “This virus has not and will not be stopped by borders drawn on maps. Countries need to protect their health personnel as never before. They must be trained on how to avoid infection, have access to adequate supplies of protective equipment for the long haul, and it is also our duty to protect them and care for them, as they will be on the front line of this battle.”

Both national and local health systems should assume their jurisdictions will be affected by the virus and prepare accordingly, Etienne said.

Widespread inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean is impacting the capacity of different countries’ health systems to adequately prepare and stockpile supplies such as personal protective equipment and ventilators, she said. Countries must work together to share resources and expertise and make joint decisions where applicable, Etienne said, noting that PAHO will facilitate such communications between nations in the region.

“I believe we can stand up to COVID-19,” Etienne said, while also warning the region that it still has much work to do to save the maximum number of lives.

“It is going to escalate and get worse before it gets better.”

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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.