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Stay on high alert, PAHO urges Caribbean, LATAM

BY ALPHEA SUMNER
Senior staff reporter
saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Caribbean and Latin American region is being urged to keep its COVID-19 surveillance systems on high alert, notwithstanding the drop in cases in some countries, and an increase in vaccination coverage.

Addressing the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) weekly media briefing yesterday, Director Dr Carissa F Etienne said vaccines have been attaining the objective of preventing severe COVID-19 illness, but she stressed the need for countries to continue to track and manage infections closely to detect and minimise community transmission.

Dr Etienne noted that 41 per cent of the population across Latin America and the Caribbean had been fully vaccinated, but said this does not represent even coverage, as some countries still have significantly lower coverage than others.

“Surveillance has always been the eyes and ears to guide our COVID response from when the first case was detected in our region as we navigated our pandemic peaks and as we continue to track emerging variants. As we look to the future, surveillance and early warning integral components of disease control will remain essential to identifying new risks and managing and responding to this next phase of the pandemic,” she said, pointing out that, in order to improve epidemic surveillance in the region, countries must act smarter and act together.

She said even as PAHO facilitates another 4.6 million COVAX-acquired doses of COVID-19 vaccines reaching the region by the end of this week, countries continue to see new infections.

PAHO reports that over the last week there were close to 817,000 new COVID-19 infections and more than 18,000 COVID-related deaths reported in the Americas.

It says the situation is more severe in the Caribbean, with the Dominican Republic and Barbados reporting over 40 per cent increases in new cases.

Dr Etienne said that with local hot spots driving national COVID-19 trends, health authorities should have a clear picture of developments at the local level and quickly communicate the risks and the public health measures needed to reduce transmission.

“By empowering local institutions like laboratories, public health schools, and universities to diagnose new infections locally as part of the national surveillance efforts, local municipalities can detect risks more quickly and remain on the pulse of emerging trends,” she told journalists and public health officials.

The director said enhancing homegrown detection capacities also means ensuring that there are enough local testing sites and that clinicians know which COVID tests are worth referring for epidemiological surveillance.

“To act smarter, countries should also look for ways to build on existing surveillance networks. By integrating COVID-19 with surveillance activities for other respiratory viruses, like influenza, countries can monitor diseases more efficiently and sustainably,” she said.

Dr Etienne advised that in partnership with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), PAHO is working to implement a new polymerase chain reaction-based multiplex protocol that will enable countries to simultaneously detect COVID-19 and influenza from the same sample.

“Acting smart also means making the most of what the data tell us,” she said, pointing to PAHO's modelling tool which tracks cases and forecasts short-term trends.

“This modelling tool helps countries measure the impact of different public health measures to inform their responses. As the pandemic continues to evolve, we encourage countries to use this tool to design their responses and apply public health measures at the right time,” she urged.

Countries that have been using this integrated testing model to manage their outbreaks include Grenada, St Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Dr Etienne also urged countries to continue to work together to improve regional surveillance.