Global health leaders are urging caution as the holiday season gets underway, pointing to a 23% spike in coronavirus cases across the Americas in the past week, a surge that follows spikes in Europe - which officials warn could be a "window into the future for the Americas."
"Time and again, we've seen how the infection dynamics in Europe are mirrored here several weeks later," Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, said during a Wednesday briefing. "The future is unfolding before us, and it must be a wake-up call for our region because we are even more vulnerable."
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On the same day, the head of the World Health Organization urged against complacency, expressing concern about a "false sense of security that vaccines have ended the pandemic and that people who are vaccinated do not need to take any other precautions."
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: "While Europe is again the epicenter of the pandemic, no country or region is out of the woods."
He underlined the trouble in Europe, where the agency reports nearly 60% of worldwide coronavirus deaths were concentrated from Nov. 15 to 21. In that time, the WHO said new cases jumped 11%. Countries in Europe have been implementing new lockdowns and restrictions - an effort to reduce numbers ahead of the end-of-year holidays.
The PAHO pointed to upward trends in new cases in the United States and Canada, with a "two-to-three-fold increase in new infections over the last week" in Canada's Yukon and Northwest territories.
In the United States, new daily reported cases have increased 8% in the past week, and deaths have grown 9%, according to tracking by The Washington Post. In that time, hospitalizations have inched up 6%. The situation is particularly dire in pockets of the nation. In Michigan, which leads the nation in covid hospitalizations, the unvaccinated covid-19 patients are swarming emergency departments and driving capacity to grueling levels.
In Canada, there was a 5% increase as of Wednesday in new confirmed cases over the past two weeks, compared with the previous two weeks, according to Our World in Data, which cites data gathered by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
During the Thanksgiving eve briefing, health officials urged that mitigation measures - including mask-wearing, social distancing and staying away from crowds - should be kept up regardless of vaccination status.
"During these holiday periods, not just for Thanksgiving in the U.S., of course, but through the end of the year, it's really important that all of us continue to take measures to keep us and our loved ones safe," said Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist leading WHO's coronavirus response during the briefing. "Those of you who have access to vaccines, who are offered vaccination, please get vaccinated when it's your turn."
In the United States, slightly more than 59% of the entire population is fully vaccinated, according to tracking by The Post. More than 19% has been fully vaccinated and has received a booster shot.
As of Nov. 19, about three-quarters of the total population of Canada is fully vaccinated, according to the government dashboard.
In South America, many countries are reporting an increase in cases, including in the Southern Cone, with the highest spikes in Bolivia and Paraguay. Central America is the only area to have experienced a drop in new infections.
Bolivia has reported a 50% increase in the number of new confirmed cases over the past 14 days, compared with the number in the previous 14 days, according to Our World in Data.
In the Bolivian department of Santa Cruz, which includes the city of the same name - the highest populated area in the country - cases have increased by 400% following recent strikes and protests, where hundreds of thousands of people gathered for days to protest anti-money laundering laws passed in August, the PAHO reported.
Paraguay - where only a little more than a third of the population is vaccinated - there has been a 73% spike in cases in the past two weeks, which has prompted health officials to sound the alarm.
Ecuador, which experienced one of Latin America's most aggressive covid outbreaks in the region, and where nightmarish images of bodies abandoned on the streets of cities such as Guayaquil shocked the world, is also showing a 32% increase in new cases.
The country recovered from the brutal first wave in 2020 and has now one of the highest vaccination rates in South America, with 62.5%. Five out of the 12 nations in the region have a vaccination rate of over 60% of the population, according to data tracked by The Post.
In Peru, a country with the world's highest covid death rate per capita, Health Minister Hernando Cevallos warned this week that the small nation is facing a "dangerous increase in cases" and urged people to be careful ahead of the Christmas holidays, according to local news reports.
Colombia's two largest cities - Bogotá and Medellín - are reporting a rise in cases and hospitalizations, especially among younger people. The country is also seeing an overall 30% increase in cases.
The Southern Cone countries of Chile, where over 84% of the population has been vaccinated, and Argentina, which has imposed strict curfews and prolonged lockdowns throughout the pandemic, are also seeing a rise in new cases.
In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago reached a seven-day average of about 555 daily new confirmed cases, its highest, according to Our World in Data. At least five of its hospitals are at more than 80% capacity, the PAHO reported. Barbados, the Cayman Islands and the Dominican Republic are also reporting high rates of new infections.
The uptick in many South American countries comes after the region experienced a brief but sharp drop in cases following a dramatic surge in the summer.
Containment measures in Latin America and the Caribbean have been uneven and largely lackadaisical as governments have had to grapple with financial devastation and poor health infrastructure, and have long wanted to jump-start the languishing economies.
Vaccination rates have been similarly unequal.
While just more than half of people are fully vaccinated in Latin America and the Caribbean, there are 19 countries where vaccination coverage lags below 40% of the population - a factor that could spearhead further surges, according to the PAHO.
The PAHO warned Wednesday that despite the sluggish vaccination rates and case surges, protective measures are being lifted or relaxed in densely populated areas.
"This is a worrisome combination that keeps us vulnerable to the virus and threatens our hard-fought gains," Etienne said.
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The Washington Post's Amanda Coletta contributed to this report.
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