CMC- With COVID-19 infections accelerating in the Americas and the detection of the Omicron variant in at least 42 countries and territories in the region, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Dr Carissa Etienne has called on countries to ensure health workers have access to protective equipment and additional vaccine doses where available.

As cases jump three-fold in some countries, the region’s ability to respond to the current wave depends on the personnel that keep primary health care centres, clinics and hospitals up and running.

“We must make sure they are protected from the worst consequences of this virus,” she said in a media briefing on Wednesday.

Over the past week, countries in the Americas reported 6.1 million new cases of COVID-19 – a 250 per cent increase from the same period last year.

Thanks to increased vaccination in the region, the COVID-19 death rate remains stable but the hike in emergency room visits and hospitalizations has left many health systems struggling to cope.

The PAHO Director highlighted that an additional vaccination dose will “help reinforce health workers’ ability to withstand exposure to the virus,” particularly in light of rising infections.

While Delta continues to cause new COVID cases in the Americas, Omicron is on track to becoming the dominant strain, spreading more quickly than other detected variants, particularly in enclosed spaces. It has already been reported in 42 countries and territories in the region, and several are now experiencing widespread community transmission.

While reports suggest that it may cause less severe symptoms, Dr Etienne warned that “this new wave of infections won’t be “mild” for our health systems, as the Omicron variant is already challenging our health workforce and limiting care for other diseases.”

“In smaller island states, some hospitals were already strained by cases of the Delta variant, and now more hospitals face the prospect of being overwhelmed with cases,” she added.

The PAHO Director also highlighted the rise in re-infections. “Omicron infections can be lethal, especially for the immunocompromised and the unvaccinated,” she said, calling on individuals to keep each other safe by following public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing, getting vaccinated and getting tested when experiencing symptoms.

Overall vaccination coverage in Latin America and the Caribbean currently stands at almost 60 per cent and many countries, including Cuba, boast some of the highest coverage rates in the world. However, it is vital that equitable coverage remains a priority, Dr Etienne said.

“Whether we are fighting for vaccine equity, supporting our health workers, or doing our part to reduce the risk of transmission, solidarity will pave our way out of the pandemic,” she added.

Over the past week in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have experienced hikes in new infections, and increases are also being seen in Jamaica, Aruba, Curacao and Martinique.