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PAHO: Vaccine not around the corner

By TANYA SMITH-CARTWRIGHT

tsmith-cartwright@tribunemedia.net

THE Pan American Health Organisation has raised alarm about countries in the region returning to “near normal” social and public life, despite the fact a COVID-19 vaccine “is not around the corner”.

One PAHO official said the recent spike in cases in The Bahamas and other countries in the region can be tied to the reopening of economies, which is a cause for concern.

Dr Ciro Ugarte, director of health emergencies at PAHO, spoke at the weekly Zoom webinar organized by PAHO where he assessed The Bahamas’ COVID-19 trends from March until now.

“The number of cases that we are seeing in The Bahamas and other Caribbean countries has increased because of the opening of the economy and is a source of concern,” Dr Ugarte said.

“The large number of cases in New Providence and ongoing detection is one source of optimism, however, in terms of the capacity of the health system to rapidly detect the cases.

“I would say that the public health measures must be strictly followed in the county to reduce the transmission and at the same time considering the relevance of new cases that are a source of concern. We need to know that these measures must be implemented and at the same time we have to put in balance the opening of the economy and access to other essential health services.” .

PAHO earlier commended The Bahamas on the actions of its COVID-19 contact tracing task force which, it said, was vital in the fight against the spread of the disease.

Dr Urgarte said The Bahamas has proven that public health strategies can work to reduce transmission and bring a balance to opening the economy.

“In the first part of this pandemic, from March until June, The Bahamas did very well,” he continued.

“Since July, some of the cases were identified on Family Islands and most of the cases in the last few weeks have been recorded in Grand Bahama and New Providence. The number of cases have remained, kind of the same in Grand Bahama, but the process is slower in New Providence where 75 percent of the population resides.

“So the health authorities are still faced with a challenge there, in particular the high rate of infection with the healthcare workers and the capacity of the laboratory. So we are following this very closely and we are in coordination with the Ministry of Health and health authorities there.”

Speaking on a regional level, Dr Carissa Etienne, director of PAHO and World Health Organization (WHO) regional director for the Americas, said the uptick in COVID cases shows the region remains vulnerable.

“Within the Caribbean, many large islands like Jamaica, The Bahamas and the Dominican Republic are witnessing drastic spikes in cases,” she noted. “Death rates are also climbing. This is a stark reminder that countless people in our region remain vulnerable to infection, especially large populations that have not yet been exposed.

“Although the entire world is racing to develop new tools to prevent and cure COVID-19, a safe and effective vaccine that can be manufactured and delivered is not around the corner. And yet, our region has started to resume near normal social and public life at a time when COVID-19 still requires major control interventions. The reasons for doing so are understandable – children need to learn, families need money to eat and live and global commerce cannot be restricted forever.”

She said it must be clear that opening up too early gives this virus more room to spread and puts populations at greater risk.

In August, Dr Sylvain Aldighieri, PAHO’s deputy director, attributed the alarming numbers of COVID-19 cases here to the opening of borders to non-essential travels and Bahamians travelling to destinations where the virus rates were skyrocketing.

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