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(Trinidad Guardian) – Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) director and the World Health Organisation (WHO) regional director for the Americas, Dr Carissa Etienne, says they neither anticipated nor were they prepared for the magnitude of the current COVID-19 pandemic. She is also warning the region to prepare for a full blast within the next few weeks.

Dr Carissa Etienne

She made the comment during a virtual press briefing yesterday on PAHO’s response to the pandemic and the evolving situation of the virus in the Americas.

Eitienne admitted that the rate and magnitude of the transmission surprised PAHO although it began looking at it late last year.

She said in November 2019 the organisation felt it was time to review pandemic planning and called up emergency personnel to ‘dig up’ pandemic plans. In the first week of December 2019, those plans were presented to an advisory group and PAHO’s executive management.

“Our instruction was to go and work with every member state to revise their plans and to begin to plan,” Etienne said.

Noting it was difficult to predict the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, she added, “This pandemic has really surpassed all of the others we have had in terms of its magnitude. I was also surprised by our inability to provide for the resources in terms of PPE’s (personal protective equipment), masks and tests. And the almost market failure concerning those required resources.”

At the press briefing, which was streamed live from PAHO’s headquarters in Washington, Etienne said COVID-19 was yet to hit with full force in the region, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean and PAHO expected it would intensify in the next few weeks.

“The rise in hospitalisations and deaths we see in countries highlights how quickly the situation could change,” she said.

“We must act with urgency before the storm hits most of our countries, to protect ourselves, families and communities.”

She stressed the cost of any inaction at this time could not be greater and immediate action was required to address both structured and long-term needs.

“In the short term, there is a dire need to expand ICU capacity in the region,” Etienne said.

Regarding long-term planning, Etienne said countries needed to guarantee that drugs and vaccines that are being developed would be accessible to all in the region, especially in the most vulnerable communities.

Etienne said focusing on social distancing remained countries’ best bet to reducing transmission and slowing the spread of the virus.

“It prevents hospitals from being overwhelmed by too many sick people at the same time and it also keeps doctors and nurses from having to make a terrible choice about which patients receive care and which patients do not,” she said.

“It is also a way to buy time for new treatments, medicines and vaccines that will allow us to fight COVID-19 and recover from it.”

She added, “There is no one size fits all approach. It’s impossible to apply the same measures from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego; however, countries need to keep that in mind. They need to ensure that many of our countries in the region who have already implemented community-wide social distancing, that they are allowing health services to operate within the capacity. This is encouraging but it must be sustained over a period of time for it to be effective.”

Etienne said economic activity could only return in full swing when people feel safe and confident that their governments are doing all they can to protect them and their loved ones.

“I urge the leadership in our region to earn this confidence by being rigorous, evidence-driven and transparent in the fight against this pandemic. 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 the countries, we can safely get back on our feet,” she said.

She made a special appeal to the private sector, saying it had to be an integral part of the response to COVID-19 and must to work with governments to make resources available to support the response.

“As the pandemic proceeds and millions are economically impacted, I would like you (private sector) to work with our partners and with governments to strengthen the safety net for all, in particular for the most vulnerable,” she said.

“We need the might of the private sector if we are going to effectively address COVID-19. It’s only in a unified manner that we would be able to successfully confront COVID-19.”

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