COVID-19 cases worsen in Latin America, no end in sight - health agency

FILE PHOTO: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bogota
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By Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) -Cases of COVID-19 may be declining in North America but in most of Latin America and the Caribbean the end to the coronavirus pandemic "remains a distant future", the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

While infections in the United States, Canada and Mexico are falling, in Latin America and the Caribbean cases are rising and vaccination is lagging badly. Only one in ten people have been fully vaccinated, which PAHO director Carissa Etienne called "an unacceptable situation."

"While we are seeing some reprieve from the virus in countries in the Northern Hemisphere, for most countries in our region, the end remains a distant future," she said.

The regional health agency discouraged summer holiday travel in the Americas now that movement restrictions are being lifted as more people are vaccinated in the Northern Hemisphere and travel destinations, such as the Caribbean, reopen for tourists.

Even people who have been vaccinated can become sick and spread COVID, Etienne said in a weekly briefing.

"Given the significant gaps in vaccine coverage and the still imminent risk of infection, now may not be the ideal time for travel – especially in places with active outbreaks or where hospital capacity may be limited," she said.

Noting that the hurricane season in the Caribbean is arriving at a time when outbreaks are worsening, Etienne urged countries to outfit hospitals and expand shelters to reduce the potential for transmission. Social distancing and proper ventilation become difficult during storms, she said.

The highly transmissible Delta variant has already been detected in a dozen countries in the Americas, but so far community transmission has been limited, said PAHO viral disease advisor Jairo Mendez.

However, it has been found in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Peru, the United States and Mexico, where it has spread in Mexico City, according to PAHO.

Given the presence of such variants, countries in the region should step up vigilance and consider the need to limit travel or even close borders, PAHO health emergencies director Ciro Ugarte said.

According to a Reuters tally, there have been at least 37,441,000 reported infections and 1,272,000 confirmed deaths caused by COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean so far, one third more than in Asia and Africa combined.

(Reporting by Anthony BoadleEditing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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