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Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director, Dr. Carissa Etienne, has praised member countries that swiftly instituted safeguards against the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in the region of the Americas.

Speaking during PAHO’s COVID-19 digital media briefing on Tuesday (July 7), Dr. Etienne noted that from the outset of the pandemic, “people across the region quickly embraced public health guidance to stay at home, avoid mass gatherings, and use protective equipment”, adding that “we were impressed by rapid adoption of [these and other] preventive measures”.

“By late January, all but two of our member states had significantly limited international travel, and by early March, all but one had imposed movement restrictions to control the virus. Many of them did so, even before they registered their first case of the coronavirus,” she further noted.

The PAHO Director said this “unprecedented effort” was instrumental in keeping cases low early in the pandemic, “thus earning us precious time to prepare our health systems”, noting that “emergency facilities were set up quickly”.

“Across the Americas, temporary hospitals and designated isolation and quarantine sites were built in record time. At least 27 countries have activated emergency teams and established measures to strengthen their national health systems,” she said.

Dr. Etienne said these efforts provided much-needed surge capacity for health systems as COVID-19 cases started to rise, adding that “thanks to these actions, we have saved thousands of lives”.

She noted that a number of countries, particularly those deemed COVID-challenged, have reconfigured their health systems to improve virus detection.

Dr. Etienne indicated that these territories have sought to decentralise their laboratory capacity to enable them to quickly identify, report and treat cases at the local level.

Doing so, she pointed out, required robust virtual and in-person training to prepare the laboratories and ensure the availability of the requisite medical supplies, “which PAHO helped [to] secure and distribute, including some 50 million COVID-19 PCR tests”.

The PAHO Director contended, however, that COVID-19 remains a pandemic of “staggering proportions”, as evidenced by the number of cases, to date, since the first was confirmed in January.

As at July 6, the number of cases across the Americas totalled 5.9 million, with almost 267,000 deaths.

Dr. Etienne pointed out that some 735,000 new cases were reported last week, averaging more than 100,000 daily, which was nearly 20 per cent higher than the previous week.

“The past six months have brought some positive surprises that have confirmed the resilience of our health systems, and some unexpected persistent challenges that we must address in the ensuing months… to control the pandemic,” she said.

While noting that PAHO and member states have leveraged “decades of experience” fighting outbreaks to swiftly confront the COVID-19 threat throughout the region, Dr. Etienne contended that “indeed, we still have a lot to learn about this virus”.

“We have a number of public health measures that work to control transmission and we must rely on them. We have no option but to continue to put all our energy into controlling [COVID-19],” she said.

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