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Americas: ‘Smart’ use of rapid tests critical amid COVID surge

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Healthcare workers are administering COVID-19 vaccines to homeless people as part of a massive vaccination campaign in Brazil.

COVID-19 cases continue to accelerate in the Americas amid increased demand for testing, the head of the regional office of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday. 

Dr. Carissa Etienne, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), highlighted the critical need for countries to scale-up testing and, in particular, to leverage “smart” use of rapid antigen tests. 

Over the past week, COVID-19 cases in the region reached new peaks, with nearly 7.2 million new infections and more than 15,000 deaths. 

“Although Omicron infections appear to be milder, we continue to urge caution because the virus is spreading more actively than ever before,” she said. 

Regional overview 

COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to surge in North America, the United States and Canada. 

Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras saw their caseloads more than double over the past week, representing the highest numbers of new cases in Central America. 

Caribbean islands are also witnessing the steepest increase in infections in the nearly three years since the pandemic was declared. Cases in Martinique have risen by more than 600 per cent, while Saint Martin has reported a more than 135 per cent increase. 

Caseloads in more than 17 countries and territories have at least doubled, which she said is especially concerning as hospital capacity in many islands is limited. 

Infections also are accelerating in Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia, while hospitalizations are growing in Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina.  

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‘Use tests smartly’ 

As the virus surges, countries are confronting what Dr. Etienne called the “familiar challenge” of testing. 

Despite a strong network of laboratories across the Americas, demand for testing is higher than ever, especially as many countries are also experiencing an active flu season, “so it’s critical that countries use tests smartly,” she said. 

PAHO has recommended that the best way to boost testing is to leverage rapid antigen tests, which provide a diagnosis in minutes.   

These tests do not require specialized training or expensive equipment, and can be deployed to primary health centres, meaning more people can be reached. 

Dr. Etienne urged countries to expand testing at the community level to relieve pressure on overburdened hospitals. 

“Because we are facing a testing shortage, PAHO recommends that countries prioritize rapid antigen tests for individuals who are experiencing COVID symptoms and are at risk of spreading the virus,” she said. 

Support to countries 

PAHO continues to support regional countries during the pandemic.   

Through its Strategic Fund, more than 42 million PCR diagnostic tests and rapid antigen tests for nearly 40 countries have been acquired since the start of the crisis, more than two years ago. 

More than 12 million tests have been deployed to countries in need, with stocks sent to Bolivia, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, as well as St. Kitts and Nevis, in recent weeks. 

The health agency has also established agreements with two of the WHO-approved manufacturers of COVID-19 diagnostic tests, to secure them at reduced cost.  

Dr. Etienne urged governments to take advantage of this arrangement by purchasing diagnostic tests through the PAHO Strategic Fund.  

Since January of 2021, the Fund has purchased more than 22 million COVID tests on behalf of regional countries, and orders are expected to increase this year.  

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