The head of the Pan American Health Organisation has urged Barbados and its regional neighbours to move urgently to shore up their health care systems to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, warning the crisis has not yet peaked.
In a virtual media briefing from PAHO’s Washington headquarters, Director Dr Carissa Etienne said the pandemic had intensified in the Americas over the past week, with more than 163,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 2,836 deaths.
Stating that the situation could get progressively worse before it gets better, Dr Etienne said: “COVID-19 will put our health systems and services to the ultimate test.
“Our region has entered a new phase with many countries reporting community transmission. The pandemic in the Americas is going to escalate and get worse before it gets better just as we have seen happen in other regions around the globe.”
She pointed to a range of issues facing several countries in the region including widespread inequality, poverty and segmented health systems, which she said could hamper chances of a speedy recovery.
Dr Etienne added: “The truth is, unless we ensure that social distancing is effective some of our health systems and services will be overwhelmed and that is why the social distancing is so important,” she said, adding that contact tracing and education would also be critical.
But she said despite the challenges there were at least three reasons for hope – the fact that the region faced threats before and overcame them, countries still have “a window of time to act”, and “we have each other”.
The PAHO chief said: “It is that hope that must encourage us to act now.
“Governments at the national and local levels should organise health systems based on the assumptions that their areas will be affected. This virus has not and will not be stopped by borders drawn on maps.”
Insisting that the hemisphere “can stand up to COVID-19”, Etienne said PAHO member states in the region have developed health systems to deal with serious challenges over the years. She gave the assurance that the PAHO was working with governments to strengthen their public health response, plan, prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Additionally, PAHO has scaled up capacity-building to ensure that countries can quickly use the resources available to respond to this outbreak,” she said.
The health official warned though, that countries should take the necessary steps to slow the spread of the virus, reduce the impact on their health systems and to save lives.
Dr Etienne said: “But only if we act now. What we do today will determine the capacity of our health systems to save lives tomorrow. Countries need to make domestic investments now to strengthen their health systems and services, building resilient health systems that have the capacity to detect [and] respond and the capacity to address the threat while at the same time ensuring the provision of health services for all those that need them
“I cannot emphasise enough that countries must take urgent action to prepare hospitals and health facilities for what is coming, an influx of COVID-19 patients that will need hospital space, beds, health professionals and medical equipment.”
She called on countries to protect their health personnel and provide adequate training, implement social distancing and other “aggressive preventive measures” to stem the spread of the viral infection.
She also urged countries to work together by sharing resources and expertise and making “joint decisions that accelerate access to health services”.
The PAHO director said: “This moment demands bold and compassionate leadership. It will not be easy and we know we will be asking people to adapt to an extraordinary situation that is impacting everything in their lives, but… this pandemic is serious and we need to do everything in our power to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our peoples and the best time to do this is now before hospitals and health workers get overwhelmed.”
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