Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) officials yesterday warned countries not to relax COVID-19 restrictions at this time, even if they are making progress with vaccination efforts.
PAHO officials also said that proof of vaccination should not be used as a standard for international travel.
The officials cited limited vaccine availability, uncertainty about the ability of fully vaccinated people to transmit COVID, the circulation of more contagious COVID variants, and a global shortage of crucial supplies like oxygen in their rationale.
PAHO Director Dr. Carissa Etienne warned that even countries that have vaccinated sizeable portions of their populations have seen spikes in cases after relaxing restrictions.
“As we ramp up vaccinations, it is also important to control the virus’ spread through the public health measures other than vaccines,” she said.
“The countries that have ignored public health measures have seen spikes in cases, even after a significant part of their population has been vaccinated. So, let’s remember that it is a combination of the two approaches, public health measures, and vaccines, that will eventually control COVID-19.”
Etienne said the region of the Americas is currently facing an “unprecedented oxygen supply challenge” due to increases in COVID hospitalizations.
PAHO Director of Health Emergencies Dr. Ciro Ugarte said that, particularly given that issue, countries should not be relaxing measures right now, even if vaccination programs are well underway.
Asked whether there is an oxygen shortage in the region, Ugarte said: “Yes, scarcity of oxygen but also of other medicines and supplies, which are used for treating patients in severe or serious conditions in hospitals is a reality.
“And there is a great need in several countries. This happens in those places where there has been an increase in the number of cases within a short period of time and they have saturated the ability to produce oxygen and distribution of oxygen, and therefore there has been an increase in the cost and [a decrease in the] availability of oxygen for patients.
“We have been witnesses to long lines that are happening in different countries. And in many cases, we have heard reports that people wait for hours and in many cases, people even have to leave the line they have been waiting on because they are told that the patient for whom they were awaiting the oxygen has died.
“So, in the countries where vaccination has been initiated, the population has a false sense of security and safety that things are improving and therefore we should do away with restrictions. But reality proves that this is not at all the case.
“Right now is when we need to be even more cautious.
“The lack of oxygen and the lack of other supplies and deaths of patients due to these quick increases in the number of cases are due to the fact that there is an increase in the probability of transmission of the virus from one person to another, the situation in India is case in point, but it has also happened in Europe and Latin America.
“And it has happened in some areas in our region due to the dramatic increase of cases, and these cases, many of them lead to deaths.”
The Bahamas has been in the throes of a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, which health officials have determined is the country’s third wave.
While the government implemented a number of stringent measures to reduce numbers in the first and second waves, including weekend lockdowns and restrictions on some non-essential businesses, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis and Minister of Health Renward Wells have said that tougher restrictions are not necessary, especially given that the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine is already underway in the country.
To date, The Bahamas has received 87,200 doses of the vaccine – 20,000 donated by the Indian government, and the remainder through the COVAX Facility.
The remaining 32,800 doses are expected from COVAX in the coming weeks.
The total 120,000 doses of the vaccine are enough to fully vaccinate 60,000 people – less than one-fifth of The Bahamas’ total population.
To date, more than 36,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered since the rollout began in March.
Even as cases have increased, Minnis also relaxed travel testing requirements for people entering The Bahamas.
Prior to May 1, everyone traveling to The Bahamas from other countries was required to test negative for COVID-19 by way of an RT-PCR test within five days before entering the country.
Travelers were also required to undergo a follow-up rapid antigen test after five days in The Bahamas.
Those traveling domestically from New Providence, Grand Bahama, Abaco and Eleuthera are also required to test negative for COVID-19 by way of an RT-PCR test within five days before their travels and undergo follow-up rapid antigen tests after five days.
However, changes were made to the travel protocols to allow fully vaccinated people traveling both domestically and internationally to be exempted from those testing requirements.
But Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri, PAHO’s incident manager for COVID-19, said proof of vaccination should not be used as a standard for international travel.
“At present, with the evolution of the spread of the virus across the Americas and in Europe, the unknowns related to the impact of COVID-19 vaccines on the transmission of the virus and the challenges related to accessing the vaccine and to rollout vaccination campaigns in most countries in the region, we need to act with caution,” he said.
“The [World Health Organization] WHO position paper published in February 2021 states that proof of vaccination against COVID-19 should neither be regarded as a guarantee of [being] free of infection nor be required as a condition to undertake international travel.”
Ugarte said the same.
“The recommendations of both WHO and PAHO are that vaccination not be a requirement for international travel or transit or resumption of economic activities,” he said.
“…Protection measures that have proved to be effective need to be maintained at all levels.”