Numbers of new Covid-19 infections are beginning to decline in several countries in the Americas, but deaths have increased, particularly in parts of Central and South America, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) said Wednesday.
The regional office of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said there were more than 4.8 million new cases of Covid-19 and more than 33,000 new deaths in the Americas in the first week of February. While still “very high,” those figure represent a 31 percent reduction in cases and a 13 percent increase in deaths compared to the last week of January.
In North America, new infections and deaths fell in the United States, Canada and Mexico, although hospitalisations declined only in the first two countries.
New cases fell across Central America too, but deaths rose by almost 30 percent in the region. The decline in infections was more pronounced in El Salvador (down 70 percent), and in Belize and Panama, by more than a third.
South America also saw a slowdown in new infections, with reductions by half in Argentina and Peru. But Covid-19 deaths continued to rise, with increases from 9.4 percent in Bolivia to 42 percent registered in Venezuela.
In addition, an increase in hospitalisations was observed in most Southern Cone countries, up an alarming 50 percent in Chile.
In the Caribbean, fewer new cases and more deaths were also reported, except in a few countries. In the Dominican Republic, for example, infections increased by 88 percent.
PAHO Director Carissa Etienne pointed to the impact of vaccination in reducing cases of severe illness and death from Covid-19 across the region.
"One trend stands out: countries with higher vaccination coverage are seeing fewer admissions and deaths in intensive care units," she said at a press conference.
"This emphasises the importance of expanding access to vaccines, including booster shots," she said.
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According to PAHO figures, one in four people in the Americas has not received a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
Does the recent decline in cases suggest the end of the pandemic?
"The main characteristic of this pandemic remains the uncertainty of its evolution. And this demands some caution. New variants of concern may emerge and completely change the epidemiological profile of Covid-19," Etienne warned.
According to Sylvain Aldighieri, incident manager at PAHO, "we are probably on the downward slope of a global wave caused by Omicron.”
Omicron, the fifth WHO-designated variant of concern since the virus emerged in late 2019 (after Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta), has generally caused less severe cases, but transmissibility has been much higher, so "it still has a significant impact," said the expert.
"If additional variants were to emerge, we cannot anticipate whether they would be more or less severe and transmissible, and this is an uncertainty we have to deal with," Aldighieri said.
Etienne noted that while it is possible that the virus that causes Covid-19 will "eventually" become endemic, "this may take a few years."
"Unfortunately, we expect to see new epidemics or large outbreaks even in areas with high vaccination coverage, especially where public health and social distancing measures are relaxed," he said.