WASHINGTON– While overall vaccination coverage has reached 41 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, surveillance will remain key to identifying new risks and responding to local infection hotspots, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr. Carissa F. Etienne said Wednesday.
The PAHO Director warned of increased infection rates in the Caribbean, parts of Canada, Mexico, Bolivia, and Venezuela and underscored the need to track and manage infections closely as vaccine rollout continues.
She warned that the situation in the Caribbean remains severe. The Dominican Republic and Barbados reported a 40 percent jump in new cases during the past week, while Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, and Martinique also saw an increase in new infections. Issues remain high in Saint Martin, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, and the Cayman Islands.
“Surveillance has always been the eyes and ears to guide our COVID response as we navigated our pandemic peaks and as we continue to track emerging variants,” Dr. Etienne said during the weekly PAHO press briefing.
“Health authorities should have a clear picture of what is happening at the local level and quickly communicate both the risks and the public health measures needed to reduce transmission.”
For municipalities to detect risks as they emerge, she added, institutions such as laboratories, public health schools, and universities must also be empowered to diagnose new infections locally.
Dr. Etienne also called for enhancing surveillance tools and networks to monitor diseases more efficiently and sustainably. PAHO is working with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to implement a new PCR test protocol to detect COVID-19 and influenza from the same sample simultaneously.
Building on the region’s longstanding surveillance networks, 45 National Public Health Laboratories run PCR tests for countries across the Americas. PAHO supports this network by standardizing laboratory protocols, conducting training, and has also donated more than 21 million COVID PCR tests and nearly 18 million rapid diagnostic tests.
This “enables us to keep a close eye on this virus and the emergence and spread of COVID-19 variants,” the PAHO director said. “We must keep investing in and expanding this regional network.”
Turning to the COVID-19 situation in the region, Dr. Etienne said that in the past week, the Americas reported nearly 817,000 new infections and over 18,000 deaths.
She highlighted the upcoming 30th anniversary of the last case of polio in the Americas as a lesson in fighting disease through sustained and concerted action.
“This extraordinary accomplishment was made possible by mass vaccination efforts and robust epidemiologic surveillance,” Dr. Etienne said.
World Polio Day this Sunday, the PAHO director added, is a reminder of what can be achieved in the region when countries work together to keep health threats in check, protect the most vulnerable, and ensure access to vaccines for all.