COVID-19: now terribly close (open article for non-subscribers)

On February 26, the first case of Coronavirus in Latin America was confirmed in Brazil, in a 61-year-old patient who had traveled to Italy. What is next? War!

“For several weeks, countries in the Americas have been preparing for the possible importation of cases of COVID-19. There are measures in place for detecting, diagnosing and caring for patients with disease,” said the Director of the Pan American Health Organization, PAHO, Carissa F. Etienne, on a press release that confirmed the first case of coronavirus in Brazil.

Naturally, she recommended that countries intensify their plans to prepare and respond to COVID-19 given the appearance of cases of new coronavirus disease.

“While it is true that some countries’ health systems in the region are more advanced than others, PAHO has international teams based in each country to work alongside authorities to ensure that, in the case of an outbreak, prevention and containment measures are carried out,” PAHO’s Press Office told Latin Trade, on the day of the Brazilian confirmation.

The region has improved its epidemiological surveillance and laboratory testing capacities since the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. “PAHO has been working with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to help them prepare for the rapid detection and response to potential cases.” They have been training and equipping laboratories to respond to potential imported cases. “Thanks to this initiative, since February 21, 29 laboratories in Latin America and the Caribbean are ready to detect COVID-19, with the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta service as the regional reference laboratory.”

It might seem that the region is quite vulnerable to epidemics, if judged by the impressive increase in diseases such as Dengue, especially in Nicaragua, Belize, Dominica, Honduras, Antigua and Barbuda and Brazil. “They cannot be compared to each other,” they said. “Dengue is transmitted by mosquitoes in inter tropical areas only and has been endemic for the past 40 years in LAC. COVID-19 is a new disease mainly transmitted through human to human transmission, including close contact.”

What’s next?

“A strong emphasis on stopping transmission continues to be an important objective while recognizing that the situation may vary from country to country and will require tailored responses,” said Carissa F. Etienne.

COVID-19 is transmitted from person to person through droplets and in contact with contaminated surfaces. The disease is spread primarily by people who already show symptoms. Current information suggests that a single infected person can infect between 1 to 4 close contacts, noted PAHO.

Due to this rapid-contagion characteristic, the impact on health services may be significant with the possibility that health services may become overwhelmed, including a high demand for specialized hospital services such as intensive care.

Analysts believe that the weakened Venezuelan healthcare system might pose a real hemispheric risk, especially for its position as Brazil’s neighbor.

In the short term, working from home, avoiding in-person meetings and air travel might be reactions that Latin Americans take to minimize their risk of contagion.

What comes after that is very unclear. For now, a reasonable action is to increase preparedness to try and avoid that this becomes the pandemic of the century in the region.

Personal care

Meanwhile, there are simple precautions that everyone can take to prevent respiratory illness, including COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use an alcohol-based sanitizing gel.
  • When coughing or sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with your flexed elbow or with a tissue; dispose of the tissue immediately and wash your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has coughing and fever.