The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) says territories in the region must “think twice” about the wholesale relaxation of social distancing measures in order to bolster faltering economies, as doing so could erase all the gains made in controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus over the past two months.
“Think twice before lifting social distancing measures. Social distancing remains our best strategy for containing the spread of the virus; however, many places that have endured a couple months of stay-at-home orders are now planning to open up. We must be careful; my advice is do not open too fast or you risk a resurgence of COVID-19 that could erase the advantage gained over the past few months,” PAHO Director Dr Carissa Etienne cautioned during a virtual briefing yesterday from Washington, DC, United States.
Dr Etienne is recommending, among other things, that regional heads of government “consider a geographic approach to lockdown and opening up based on the transmission in specific locales as appropriate”.
In conceding that the restrictions imposed have not been one size fits all, she acknowledged that “the disruption caused by COVID-19 has shaken our economies to the core” with the “sharp rise in unemployment across the region already pushing many families into poverty, and sadly more will follow, particularly considering how much it has affected the informal sector for many people in the region”.
“We understand that measures, like social distancing, pose a real challenge to persons who have to work every day to bring food into their homes and we recognise that imposing those measures for weeks and even months becomes more and more difficult for those families. The pandemic has forced us to address three emergencies: health, social and economic,” Dr Etienne said, noting “we need to address those three at the same time”.
“Every government is working to address the same issue… it is a difficult balance to strike, but I like to think it is not an impossible one… we need a joint approach… we must also look for ways to stimulate economies. We cannot and must not leave COVID-19 to time and chance,” the PAHO director stated.
In the meantime, she said PAHO continues to recommend that regions “test, trace, treat, and isolate”.
“Social distancing slows transmission so that health services can test suspected cases, trace contact and treat and isolate cases. It is a combination that works as long as you adapt it to each setting and it is a core strategy of many countries that have successfully controlled transmission,” the PAHO director pointed out.
She, in the meantime, cautioned that countries “don’t make decisions in the dark”.
“Surveillance is the most valuable tool to guide our public health actions. Even though testing capacity is not perfect, virtually all places in the region have sufficient data to track and monitor where the virus is spreading. This must drive our decision-making. Use data to tailor your response, protect vulnerable communities and focus your attention where new infections are on the rise; preventive efforts are more effective when supported by surveillance,” Dr Etienne urged.
She also encouraged countries to strengthen their health-care systems and ensure the well-being of their health-care workers.
“Your response to the pandemic depends on your health workers being safe and healthy. We are doing better with providing personal protective equipment but we need to keep supplies flowing as cases rise,”she said.
“Stigma towards health-care workers must not be tolerated; they risk their lives to save others and they need our support now more than ever,” she added.
The tab of cases in region is now approaching three million. In the past week alone there were 732,000 new cases globally with more than 250,000 new cases in Latin American countries, prompting PAHO last week to declare the region as the new epicentre.
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