The Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Dr Carissa F. Etienne today warned that relaxing social distancing measures “too soon could accelerate the spread of the virus and open the door for a dramatic upsurge or for spread” to neighbouring countries.
But in a briefing with journalists, Dr Etienne reserved particular concern for Haiti and warned of the dangers of a large-scale outbreak in the hemisphere’s poorest nation, which, added to the difficult situation Haiti is going through, could trigger a humanitarian crisis.
“A much broader coalition to address a potential health crisis in this country is needed,” said Dr Etienne.
Since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the Americas more than three months ago, the virus has spread to all countries in the region, causing more than 1.4 million cases and more than 86,000 deaths, up to Monday.
Dr Etienne pointed out that in many areas of the hemisphere, the number of cases is doubling every few days, as is the case in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Mexico.
“This is a concerning indicator that tells us that transmission is still very high in those countries, and they should implement the full range of public health measures available – extensive testing, contact tracing, isolating cases and, of course, social distancing,” she stressed.
The PAHO director noted that in North America it is important to maintain special measures to protect the most vulnerable groups, particularly in places where the virus has not yet had an impact.
She called for increase testing capacity in Central America, while in South America she said there is growing concern about more cases being reported in smaller towns with limited hospital capacity.
But in the Caribbean, most countries are at the early stages of their outbreaks, but they have implemented very strict public health measures that are having a positive impact in slowing the spread without their borders, she said.
“Not all communities are affected in the same way, health capacity is also very diverse. Based on evidence and WHO and PAHO’s guidance, each country must adjust its approach to what is happening at the district, city or state level,” she told journalists.
Dr Etienne stressed that any decision on resumption of normal activities should be based on data.
She said: “Analyze the rate of new cases and deaths, evaluate the capacity of beds in hospitals and determine what it tells you about the spread of the virus.
“The social and economic pressure we are seeing now will be greater if we fail to contain the virus, remove control measures prematurely and overwhelm our health systems capacity.”
But in Haiti, the PAHO chief warned there is a “perfect storm approaching” although the nation of 11.4 million people has reported only 100 cases.
”We are especially worried about Haiti and I wish to sound the alarm of an impending humanitarian crisis, Dr Etienne said.
She explained that there are already 17,000 Haitians who have returned from the Dominican Republic, where there is community transmission, and this number is expected to reach 55,000 in two weeks.
Dr Etienne highlighted the limited capacity of the Haitian health system: “There are few beds for treating COVID-19, insufficient numbers of health professionals and insufficient personal protective equipment.
“The security of the COVID-19 designated hospitals and the safety of community health workers is of great concern.”
The PAHO Director noted that most Haitians do not have access to clean water and sanitation, and “many live in overcrowded households where quarantine and isolation are challenging.”
In addition, “there is a real risk that growing good insecurity will result in famine. Civil unrest, a difficult political situation and precarious security may further complicate the situation,” she said.