Soldiers clear a road after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Photo by: Sgt. Alexis Vélez / The National Guard / CC BY

WASHINGTON — The onset of hurricane season in the Caribbean and Central America, as well as winter in the Southern Hemisphere, could greatly challenge the region’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, warned Dr. Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, on Tuesday.

Don't let coronavirus derail urgent vaccinations, PAHO warns

Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean must continue vaccinating against illnesses such as measles, polio, and influenza to prevent backsliding due to COVID-19, the Pan American Health Organization said Tuesday.

The Americas are already home to the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world at about 3.4 million, representing half of all cases worldwide, Etienne said. Cases are surging in Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica, while the virus “continues to spread aggressively” in Brazil, Peru, and Chile. Climatic factors threaten to further complicate the response.

“We must start planning now for a formidable challenge that could make our situation worse — that is the weather,” Etienne said during a press briefing.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed our region to the limit. Our communities and health systems are under duress, and our collective efforts are laser-focused on containing the virus.”

Etienne said this would require the region to “redouble our efforts” in reducing COVID-19’s spread during the approaching hurricane and winter seasons. She said countries must reinforce their health infrastructure by hiring additional staff members and expanding reserves of essential supplies and protective equipment to make sure seasonal threats do not derail progress against the pandemic.

“Now is the time to review national hurricane response plans and conduct simulation exercises to ensure your disaster and COVID-19 responses are aligned,” Etienne said, adding that countries should also plan for potential disruptions to the care of critically ill patients and refine evacuation plans.

Experts have predicted that 2020 will be “one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record,” which could see countries responding to the aftermath of a hurricane while the pandemic continues. Storms that may destroy sanitation systems, contaminate water supplies, and disrupt the delivery of health care pose a significant risk to nations that are still working to contain COVID-19, Etienne said.

“We must start planning now for a formidable challenge that could make our situation worse — that is the weather.”

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

PAHO has issued guidance for countries on managing emergency shelters, should evacuations be necessary during the pandemic. Measures include ensuring social distancing, disinfecting high-traffic areas, and isolating people who show signs of illness. The organization is also working to provide emergency response supplies throughout the region and to secure labs and isolation centers so that diagnosis and quarantine can continue even after a storm.

Etienne said that while there is no evidence that temperature or humidity levels affect the transmission of COVID-19, winter does fuel the spread of respiratory illnesses such as seasonal influenza and pneumonia as people spend more time indoors.

“This is a problem for patients because respiratory illnesses leave them at greater risk of severe COVID-19 infection,” Etienne said. “This is also a challenge for strained health systems that will have to cope with the dual burden of the coronavirus pandemic and a spike in other respiratory illnesses.”

Because the seasonal flu and COVID-19 lead to similar symptoms, the arrival of winter could further complicate the effective diagnosis of coronavirus cases, she said. PAHO is encouraging countries to carry out flu vaccination campaigns in schools or supermarkets instead of hospitals to respect social-distancing measures. Etienne said that 14 countries have started to immunize 90 million people against the seasonal flu and that more than half of the target population has already been vaccinated.

“The Americas region is no stranger to natural disasters or seasonal health outbreaks,” Etienne said. “Indeed, our experience navigating these challenges has fueled our resilience in the fight against COVID-19. We must rely on that experience now more than ever.”

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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.