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Pan American Health Organization says winter season, hurricanes threaten fight against COVID-19

June 9, 2020

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said Tuesday that “seasonal threats,” such as the arrival of the southern winter and the hurricane season in the northern hemisphere, may hinder the fight against COVID-19 on the American continent.

“As our region works together to contain the spread of COVID-19, we must begin planning now for a formidable challenge that could worsen our situation: the climate,” PAHO Director Carissa Etienne told a news conference.

“In South America, our response to the pandemic will be affected by the arrival of winter, while the hurricane season will complicate our efforts in North and Central America, and especially in the Caribbean,” she added.

The Americas currently contain almost half of the 7.1 million cases and of the 406,000 global deaths from COVID-19. The United States is the country with the most infections, and Brazil is third.

June 21 marks the start of winter in the southern hemisphere, and while Etienne said there is no data indicating that temperature or humidity influences the spread of the new coronavirus, there is evidence that this season increases other respiratory infections such as the flu and pneumonia.

This creates problems not only for the population but for health systems, which must respond to both the pandemic and the peak of other respiratory diseases, with the aggravating circumstance that symptoms are similar and can hinder the diagnosis of COVID-19.

“Early vaccination to prevent serious cases of influenza is more crucial than ever,” emphasized the director of PAHO, urging countries to adapt immunization campaigns while applying measures of social distancing.

Etienne made no secret of her concern about “exponential increases in cases and deaths” in some regions of the Americas and the appearance of the virus in new places.

Particularly noteworthy was the increase in infections in Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica, especially on the border with Nicaragua.

In South America, she noted that the new coronavirus continues to spread “aggressively” in Brazil, Peru and Chile, and that in Venezuela there is an acceleration of infections not seen until now.

In the Caribbean, she focused on Haiti, where an increase in infections is observed, and Suriname, which after more than a month without new cases reported an increase in the past week.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed our region to the limit,” she said. “Preparing for winter and hurricane season is a critical part of this fight.”

The Caribbean islands, the Mesoamerica region, and the southern and eastern coasts of the United States are at increased risk of complications to address the health crisis due to expected storms.

According to US meteorologists, the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs officially from June 1 to November 30, will be more active than average this year, with up to six Category 3 or higher hurricanes.

This jeopardizes three fundamental variables to respond to COVID-19: the supply of drinking water, the sanitation systems and the medical attention of the population, Etienne warned.

“Now is the time to review national hurricane response plans and conduct simulation exercises,” she said, noting that PAHO is currently working with countries at risk to ensure response to a climate emergency without neglecting measures to curb the coronavirus.

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