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Covid-19: Case rises in the Americas driven by increases in North and Central America

BMJ 2022; 377 doi: (Published 30 May 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;377:o1355
  1. Luke Taylor
  1. Bogotá

Covid-19 cases continue to rise in the Americas, where the number of reported infections rose 13% in the week to 21 May.

More than 1 million cases were reported in the region in the week to 21 May compared with 918 000 the previous week, senior officials from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said at a press conference on 25 May. Some 13 of the 32 countries and territories in the Americas that share the necessary data with PAHO saw an increase in covid-19 hospital admissions, while 8 out of 28 saw an increase in weekly intensive care unit admissions.

Central and North America are driving the regional surge in infections. Some 698 175 new cases of covid-19 were reported in the US, up 8% from the previous week. Cases in the US rose for an eighth consecutive week and accounted for more than half of all cases in the Americas.

At a briefing on 18 May, PAHO officials said they were concerned that health systems in the region could be unprepared for a resurgence of SARS-CoV-2. Many countries have reduced testing and lifted restrictions on mask wearing and social distancing in recent months following a drop in infections after the surge driven by the omicron variant in January.

PAHO director Carissa Etienne said some governments were letting their guard down despite them not having reached high levels of vaccine coverage. Only 14 of 51 countries in the Americas and territories have reached the World Health Organization’s goal of 70% vaccination coverage, leaving them vulnerable to future surges, particularly if new variants emerge.

Etienne called on governments to strengthen testing infrastructure and maintain high levels of hospital capacity so that health services can quickly be scaled-up should infections surge. Governments must also do more to make sure vaccines reach the oldest and most vulnerable populations, officials said.

“Each country is only as protected as the most vulnerable in their population,” Etienne told reporters, pointing out that most of the region now has an abundance of vaccines. “It is time to take stock of these numbers and act. Covid-19 is again on the rise in the Americas.”

The rise in cases goes against the trend in other regions. Globally, cases have been declining since the end of March this year.

A total of 3.7 million cases were reported globally last week, down 2.6% on the previous week. Cases increased most in the Americas, where they were up 13%, followed by the western Pacific (6%). All other regions saw a decline in new cases. Cases fell by 20% in Europe, by 23% in South East Asia, by 24% in Africa, and by 12% in the eastern Mediterranean.

The biggest overall increases in new infections in the Americas were reported in the US (669 168 cases, 11% increase), Brazil (97 674 cases, 19% increase), and Argentina (43 487 cases, 28% increase).

Zulma Cucunubá, an epidemiologist at Bogotá’s Javeriana University, said case numbers in Latin America—which drove global surges in infections earlier in the pandemic—varied greatly by country but protection gained from vaccines and infections is high compared with the rest of the world.

“Although testing has decreased in Latin America compared with previous waves, we have not seen an important increase in severe cases and deaths, which are less affected by testing,” Cucunubá said. “Positivity rates remain low compared with previous waves.”

WHO officials warned in their weekly report that trends in infections should be treated with caution, as many countries are changing their covid-19 testing strategies and for the most part are performing fewer tests.

Increased levels of natural immunity and vaccination along with improved hospital treatment meant the number of deaths dropped in all regions except the eastern Mediterranean, despite the rise of infections. More than 9400 deaths were reported globally for the week, down 11% on the previous week. Deaths in the Americas, where nearly 3700 were reported, accounted for 39% of the global tally.

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