Dr. Etienne at a COVID-19 Conference
Dr. Etienne at a COVID-19 Conference

Washington, DC, April 14 2020 (PAHO)—The Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Carissa F. Etienne, said that social distancing measures are giving our societies a chance to prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that any attempt to transition to more flexible measures should be taken with extreme caution.

"Social distancing needs to be accompanied by comprehensive social support measures to ensure the most vulnerable can comply without severe risk to their livelihoods," Dr. Etienne said today during a weekly media briefing.

Dr. Etienne also warned that "COVID-19 has yet to hit with full force in our region, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, and we expect it to intensify in the next few weeks. Indeed, the rise in hospitalizations and deaths we see in some countries highlights how quickly the situation could change in others."

As of April 13, there have been 644,986 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Americas, and 25,551 deaths. PAHO's Director noted that community transmission is being reported by a growing number of countries in North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

The best bet for reducing transmission

Social distancing measures "remain our best bet to reduce transmission and slow the spread of the virus in our communities," said Dr. Etienne. PAHO today issued recommendations on this issue to slow the spread of COVID-19,

Many countries in the region have implemented community-wide social distancing measures that are allowing health services to operate within their capacity – this is encouraging but must be sustained over a period of time to be effective, she noted.

"Following a period of social distancing, any attempt to transition to more flexible measures should be taken with extreme caution. Such decisions should always be informed by disease transmission patterns, COVID-19 testing and contact tracing capacity, the availability of hospitals bed, and other objective criteria," she warned.

Dr. Etienne said that social-support measures to ensure the most vulnerable can comply without severe risk to their livelihoods will require "an adequate national and local logistical capacity to ensure the delivery of medicines, tests, food and other supplies for our populations."

Urgent need to accelerate testing and expand intensive care capacity

"We know the picture is not complete: there is an urgent need for countries to accelerate and expand testing for a more accurate understanding of the pandemic in the Americas," Dr. Etienne said. "We must act with urgency before the storm hits most countries, to protect ourselves, our families and our communities."

One of the most important short-term needs is to expand the capacity of intensive care units in the region.PAHO is sharing expertise on delivery and management of intensive care with countries, using lessons learned from China, Spain, and others , Dr. Etienne said. "In the long term, we need to plan now to guarantee that the drugs and vaccines that are being developed are accessible to all in our region, especially in the most vulnerable communities," she noted.

"Implementing the measures required to stop COVID-19 can be disruptive but failing to do so will risk prolonging this crisis. Interrupting recommended social distancing too early could have the opposite effect – and lead to a second wave of COVID-19 cases, extending suffering and socioeconomic uncertainty over the long term in the Region of the Americas," she said.

"Only by implementing the interventions required for each setting – guided by science and solidarity – can we slow down, and ultimately break, the spread of COVID-19 in our region. And then together, within and across our countries, we can safely get back on our feet," PAHO's director concluded