South America Covid cases surge but vaccine brings optimism

After months of probation, confirmed cases of COVID-19 are surging in the southern tip of South America. But officials in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay hope that high vaccination rates will mean this latest pandemic will not be as deadly as previous ones.

At the same time, there are concerns that many are not prepared to retake the precautions that authorities say are necessary to keep cases manageable.

Cases have been steadily increasing over the past few weeks, primarily driven by the BA.2 version of the Omicron variant. In Chile, the weekly number of confirmed cases by the end of May more than doubled compared to the beginning of the month. During the same period, it increased by 146% in Argentina while it increased by almost 200% in Uruguay.

Although the number of positive tests is far less than the previous wave, experts say the rise in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is a reminder that the pandemic is not over.

Argentina’s Health Minister Carla Vizzotti recently said that Argentina “is starting a fourth wave of COVID-19”; in Chile, Health Minister Begoña Yarza described the present moment as “the inflection point of the pandemic”; in Uruguay, President Luis Lacalle said this. Poe said he was “worried” and urged everyone to “be vigilant.”

The country is part of a regional trend, with cases increasing across the continent.

“COVID is on the rise again in the Americas,” Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, told an online press conference last week.

For many residents of the area, the sharp rise has meant suddenly having to rethink about the coronavirus.

“Since my birthday last week, there have been numerous cases in my family,” said 40-year-old Marina Barroso outside a testing center in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. “The number of cases has really increased,” she said.

The high increase in cases has not yet led to a significant number of hospitalizations and deaths. Officials acknowledge the region’s high immunization rates as more than 80% of the population of the three countries have received at least two doses.

Claudia Salgueira, president of the Argentine Institute of Infectious Diseases (SADI), said: “We are in a very different situation from previous epidemics because a large number of people have been vaccinated.

In Uruguay, the number of ICU beds occupied by patients doubled from 1.5% at the beginning of the month to just over 3% by mid-May.

“Of course, mathematically we’ve doubled the number of cases, but we’re still talking about a small number,” said Julio Pontet, president of the Uruguayan Academy of Intensive Care, who heads the intensive care unit at Pasteur Hospital in Montevideo. “It is the high level of vaccination that protects us from serious situations.”

“In the previous wave, there was a lag between the increase in cases and hospitalizations, and it’s likely the same will happen now,” said Felipe Elorrieta, a researcher in mathematical epidemiology at the University of Santiago. “But now the death toll will decrease.”

Chile has an advantage, he said, as it enjoys the highest level of immunization in the region and one of the highest rates of booster immunization in the world, he said.

Chile has basically made life very difficult for people who avoid injections, allowing large parts of the population to get additional shots.

From June, Chile will block “passage passes” for adults who have been receiving their first booster for more than six months and who haven’t received their second booster. Without a pass, Chileans cannot attend restaurants, bars and large events.

In other countries in the region, there are some who warn of a lack of vaccination campaigns, as there are still many who have not received boosters.

“There’s a huge number of people who don’t get the right vaccine, 4 million get it once, 10 million get it twice, and there’s a group that isn’t vaccinated,” said infectious disease expert Hugo Fitch. He is Professor of Medicine at the National University of Cordoba, Argentina. “There is a cold, rebellious attitude that really drives people crazy.”

Adriana Valladares, 41, a retailer from Buenos Aires, said the increase in cases won’t change her lifestyle.

“I feel pretty protected because I’ve been vaccinated three times,” she said. “Back in the day, this virus was really scary, but now a lot of people are infected and they know they’re fine.”

Some people have found that getting tested is not as easy as it used to be.

“The number of patients has increased tremendously, but they are not testing everywhere,” José Sabarto said in Avellaneda, Buenos Aires. Sabarto said her daughter had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and that her family wanted to be tested, but were having trouble finding an active testing center.

Etienne said it’s important that the test infrastructure be “maintained and hardened”.

“The truth is, this virus isn’t going away anytime soon,” she added.

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