Vaccines provide optimism as COVID cases surge in South America

Buenos Aires, Argentina — After months of respite, confirmed cases of COVID-19 are piling up in the southern tip of South America. But officials in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are hoping high vaccination rates mean this latest wave won’t be as deadly as previous ones.

At the same time, there are concerns that many people are unwilling to resume taking the preventive measures authorities say are needed to ensure cases remain manageable.

The cases have been steadily increasing for weeks, fueled significantly by the BA.2 version of the omicron variant. In Chile, the number of weekly confirmed cases more than doubled by the end of May compared to earlier in the month. In Argentina, cases rose 146 percent over the same period, while in Uruguay the increase was nearly 200 percent.

Although the number of positive tests remains far lower than in previous waves, experts say the spike in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is a reminder that the pandemic is far from over.

Argentina’s Health Minister Carla Vizzotti recently said that Argentina is “launching a fourth wave of COVID-19,” while in Chile, Health Minister Begoña Yarza described the current moment as “a turning point in the pandemic,” and in Uruguay, President Luis Lacalle Pou, he said was “concerned” and called on everyone to be “vigilant”.

The countries are part of a regional trend as cases have risen across the continent.

“COVID is on the rise again in America,” Carissa Etienne, the head of the Pan American Health Organization, said during an online news conference last week.

For many residents of the region, the sharp increase means that they suddenly have to think about the corona virus again.

“After my birthday last week, there were numerous cases in my family,” said Marina Barroso, 40, outside a testing center in a Buenos Aires suburb. “The number of cases has literally skyrocketed.”

The high increase in cases has yet to translate into significant numbers of hospitalizations and deaths. Officials credit the region with high vaccination rates because more than 80 percent of the population in the three countries have received at least two doses.

“We are in a very different situation from the previous waves because such a large part of the population is vaccinated,” said Claudia Salgueira, the president of the Argentine Society of Infectious Diseases (SADI).

In Uruguay, the number of intensive care unit beds occupied by patients has doubled, from 1.5 percent earlier in the month to just over 3 percent by mid-May.

“Sure, mathematically we’ve doubled the cases, but we’re still talking small numbers,” said Julio Pontet, president of the Uruguayan Society of Intensive Care Medicine, who heads the intensive care unit at Pasteur Hospital in Montevideo. “What protects us from the severe cases is our high level of vaccination.”

In previous waves, there was a lag between a spike in cases and hospital admissions “and it’s likely the same thing will happen now,” said Felipe Elorrieta, a mathematical epidemiology researcher at the University of Santiago. “Even so, the death toll will now be lower.”

Chile is at an advantage because it has the highest level of vaccination in the region and the highest rate of booster shots in the world, with more than 80 percent of people getting at least a third dose, he said.

Chile has been able to get such a large portion of its population to get booster shots by essentially making life very difficult for those who avoid shots.

Beginning in June, Chile will suspend the “mobility passport” of any adult who received their first booster shot more than six months ago and has not received a second booster shot. Without the pass, Chileans are not allowed to visit restaurants, bars or major events.

In other countries in the region, some are warning that the vaccination campaign will be delayed as many people have yet to receive booster shots.

“There’s a tremendous percentage of people who are under-vaccinated, four million people only have one dose, 10 million have only two and there’s a group that doesn’t have any,” said Hugo Pizzi, an infectious disease specialist professor at from the Faculty of Medicine at Argentina’s Córdoba National University. “There’s an apathetic, defiant attitude in the population that’s really driving insane.”

Adriana Valladares, a 41-year-old retail worker in Buenos Aires, says the increase in cases will not change her life.

“I’ve got three cans, so I feel pretty protected,” she said. “I used to be really scared of this virus, but now I know a lot of people who have contracted it and they’ve been fine.”

Some are finding that getting tested isn’t as easy anymore.

“There’s a huge spike in cases, but they’re not testing anywhere,” said José Sabarto in Avellaneda, in the province of Buenos Aires. Sabarto said his daughter was diagnosed with COVID and a family member wanted to get tested but had trouble finding active testing centers.

It is important that the testing infrastructure “is maintained and strengthened,” Etienne said.

“The truth is,” she added, “this virus is not going away anytime soon.”

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