Compared to the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 was “undoubtedly worse” for the Americas, where infections and deaths tripled, the top UN health official there reported on Wednesday.
Dr. Carissa Etienne, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), delivered her final briefing of the year, providing a regional update and reflections on the crisis.
A heavy toll
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 98 million people in the Americas have developed COVID-19 and more than 2.3 million have died from the disease.
More than a third of all cases reported worldwide, and one in four deaths, have occurred in the region.
“And when we compare 2020 to 2021, this year was undoubtedly worse. We saw triple the number of COVID infections and deaths in this second year of the pandemic than we did in 2020,” Dr. Etienne told journalists.
She said hospitals were stretched thin, stocks of vital medicines and supplies ran low, and health systems “were put to the test like never before.”
PAHO is the regional office of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Over the past week, more than 926,056 new COVID-19 infections were reported across the Americas, a nearly 19 per cent increase over previous weeks.
North America is experiencing a resurgence in cases as Mexico witnesses a reduction in infections.
Cases are down in Central America, except in Panama, where they have steadily increased over the last month.
“We’re seeing a shifting picture in South America,” Dr. Etienne reported. “Cases have dropped in Bolivia for the first time since September, just as COVID infections increased in Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay, and cases remain steady in Brazil and Peru.”
Although infections are down overall across the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago reached its highest weekly case count, while Saint Lucia also saw cases rise by 66 per cent over the last week.
The Cayman Islands reported the highest weekly incidence of any country or territory in the Americas.
Vaccine inequity persists
While 2021 has been “a sobering year”, COVID-19 vaccines have protected millions against the worst of the coronavirus, said Dr. Etienne. More than 1.3 billion doses have been administered in the region to date.
“Although rollout of vaccines has not been as rapid as we would have liked, or as evenly distributed, today 56 per cent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, thanks to the efforts of countries and the support of donors,” she said.
Dr. Etienne warned that vaccine inequity continues to divide the region, saying “if we don’t address glaring gaps, we’ll fail to bring this virus under control.”
Medical workers prepare to carry out COVID-19 tests in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Learn from the pandemic
With no “magic bullet” against COVID-19, the health official underscored the need to both embrace new tools and use them wisely.
Several promising new drugs are in late-stage development, and countries must be ready to leverage them once approved, she said.
Dr. Etienne also urged countries to build on lessons learned over the pandemic. This includes heeding advice from WHO, experts, scientists, and regulators “whose jobs it is to carefully review the safety and efficacy of drugs and recommend when, where and how to deploy them.”
Countries must also work together to ensure people everywhere can benefit from any new therapeutics, once available, through timely access and affordable prices.
Solidarity and sharing
Stressing that “we cannot and must not let history repeat itself”, Dr. Etienne called for nations to collaborate now to expand production capacity, including in the Americas region, “so countries don’t remain completely dependent on pharmaceutical imports.”
She underlined the importance of solidarity, another major lesson from the pandemic, which is how vaccines were developed in record time, variants could be identified quickly, and countries could adjust their responses based on latest available evidence.
“Each time we worked together, we had breakthroughs. But when countries worked in isolation, when innovations and resources were not shared, we created space for the pandemic to thrive. Sharing is central to defeating this pandemic,” she said.