CMC – With Europe seeing record spikes in COVID-19 infections and cases rising by 23 per cent in the Americas over the past week, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Dr Carissa Etienne has advised caution on lifting preventative measures and warned against complacency in tackling the pandemic.

“As end of year celebrations approach, get vaccinated, keep gatherings small and ensure mask-wearing and social distancing, especially indoors,” she urged in a virtual media briefing on Wednesday.

Over the last few weeks, many European countries have reported record numbers of new cases despite high vaccination coverage. The relaxation of public health measures combined with pockets of unvaccinated people has created the perfect environment for the virus to spread, Dr Etienne said.

“Throughout this pandemic, Europe has been a window into the future for the Americas,” the PAHO Director warned. “The future is unfolding before us, and it must be a wake-up call for our region.”

Upward trends are already seen throughout the Americas, including the Caribbean where infection rates are high.

While just over half of people in Latin America and the Caribbean are now fully vaccinated against COVID, 19 countries have yet to reach the WHO target of 40 per cent vaccination coverage by the end of 2021. Despite this, preventative measures are being lifted, including in densely populated areas.

“Every time we lower our guard, the virus gains momentum and threatens our hard-fought gains,” the PAHO Director said.

Last year, the Americas saw a jump in new cases following the holiday season, which took months to decline. With the upcoming holidays and summer vacations in the Southern Hemisphere, Dr Etienne warned that “our individual and collective decisions chart the path of this pandemic”.

She added that it is therefore crucial that individuals get vaccinated as soon as possible to protect against severe disease and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, particularly if they plan to travel, she said.

More than 1.3 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the Americas and PAHO said it is working to expand access in places that are falling behind.

Dr Etienne stressed that continued public health measures alongside vaccination are also key to reducing the spread. These include mask-wearing, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings, particularly indoors.

“We’ve already faced the consequences of an uncontrolled pandemic and we don’t want to be in that position again,” she added. “It’s up to all of us to make smart and safe choices this holiday season so we can protect ourselves and each other from this virus.”