Wednesday 5 August, 2020

PAHO: Timing and planning needed to safely relax COVID-19 restrictions

Countries planning to relax public health measures must take a phased approach based on local conditions and be prepared to impose preventive measures again if the epidemiological situation changes.

The advice was given by the Director of the Pan American Health Organisation, Dr Carisa Etienne.

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During a media briefing on Tuesday, she said the more granular our understanding of where COVID-19 strikes, the more targeted our response will be.

As such she said it is imperative that we think both nationally and locally and base decisions on the latest data.

“As we are seeing, countries, states and cities that do not embrace preventive measures or relax restrictions too soon can be flooded with new cases.”

The PAHO Director said the timing is critical.

“At national or at the local level, we must open gradually, taking a phased approach that relies on robust surveillance, data, and expanded testing and contact tracing capacity. If the situation changes and infections rise, localities and countries must adjust course quickly."

Drawing reference to the 5.1 million positive cases and 247 thousand related deaths recorded in the United States Dr Etienne said: to truly understand the impact of the virus and to plan more effectively for what comes next, it’s important to look beyond regional and national data and focus on the local level. 

“We often hear about the number of cases in large countries like Brazil, Mexico or the United States without the appreciation of their considerable societal and geographic diversity. In fact, multiple epidemiological curves coexist both within our region and within each country, and public health responses must be tailored to these specific situations,” Etienne said.

The PAHO director said reopening requires public health measures to track new cases and build sufficient capacity to detect and control new outbreaks. 

She said a number of things should be considered before restrictions are relaxed, among them:

  • The transmission should be going down in a sustainable way
  • Deaths should be decreasing
  • Hospital bed occupancy rates should be low

Dr Etienne also listed public health measures local and national governments should take.

She said timely testing and isolation of cases are critical to reducing transmission.

 “We need tests, but we also need test results to be reported quickly to paint an accurate picture. Anyone with symptoms should have the guidance and support needed to reduce the chance of transmitting to others.”

The PAHO chief whip said when anchored to a strong primary health care system, contact tracing can help reduce the risk of transmission among vulnerable communities.

The Pan American Health Organisation is working closely with countries and local governments to analyse trends and guide decision making as it relates to treating COVID-19.

Dr Etienne said: “PAHO has supported countries in every aspect of the response, providing guidance, training, and supplies. Over the past two months, we have donated almost 5 million PCR tests to the region and procured more than 10 million tests on behalf of our countries. We made 54 shipments of PPEs to 26 countries.”

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