A number of countries in the western Pacific are experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, prompting the World Health Organization’s regional director to caution against complacency even as vaccines are rolling out in several countries there.
“I understand that people are sick of this pandemic. I am too. But despite this fatigue, we must continue with the basic prevention measures, such as mask-wearing, hand-washing, and maintaining a physical distance, at least until the majority of people in every country have been vaccinated,” said Dr. Takeshi Kasai during a press briefing Wednesday.
There’s been a rise in cases in countries including — but not limited to — the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, where hospitals are reaching or have already exceeded full capacity and large numbers of health workers have contracted COVID-19.
WHO is analyzing what’s driving the current surge in cases, but multiple factors are likely contributing, Kasai said. These include the emergence of COVID-19 variants, a number of which have been reported in several countries across the western Pacific.
“No country is safe until every country is safe. But it's also true within countries; no community is safe until every community is safe.”— Dr. Takeshi Kasai, regional director for the western Pacific, WHO
A total of 15 countries in the region have reported cases of the variant first reported in the United Kingdom, while nine have reported cases of the variant discovered in South Africa. Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea have reported cases of the variant first found in Brazil.
Another potential factor is the easing of public health measures, such as those restricting gatherings. For example, younger populations may be unaware that they are already infected and are now spreading the virus due to lack of symptoms.
“COVID-19 may have limited impact [on] these people, but it has a potentially devastating impact on more vulnerable people with whom they come into contact,” Kasai said.
“Vaccine optimism” — the belief that the end of the pandemic is near as vaccines have started to roll out, leading to the relaxation of health measures — could be another contributing factor, he said.
“Unfortunately, this is just not the case. We can anticipate that there will be more of these surges. The virus is still circulating, and we simply cannot let down our guard — not yet,” Kasai said.
The WHO official said governments should “continue to ensure strong systems for surveillance and early detection of cases,” in addition to “strengthening their health care capacity and public health systems to prepare for possible large-scale community transmission.” The pandemic situation can change quickly, as seen in recent weeks, and countries need to be prepared, he said.
Kasai also called for the effective use of COVID-19 vaccines, as doses remain limited in supply, and ensuring that they are given to health care workers and others who are most at risk.
“We've said from the beginning of this pandemic that no country is safe until every country is safe. But it's also true within countries; no community is safe until every community is safe,” he said.