WHO to Latam: Don't lower COVID-19 guard, deaths could quadruple by October

BRASILIA/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The toll from COVID-19 could rise to 438,000 deaths in Latin America by October if prevention measures are not kept up, the World Health Organization’s regional director for the Americas Carissa Etienne warned on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured on the headquarters of the World Health Orgnaization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, June 25, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Fatalities so far in Latin America have reached 113,844 or almost one fifth of the number of people who have died globally, according to mapping by Reuters.

The Americas is the world epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic and the toll for the whole region could almost treble to 637,000 by Oct. 1, the WHO official said, though she cautioned that mathematical model projections should not be taken literally but only as planning guides.

Under current conditions, the pandemic is expected to peak in Chile and Colombia by mid-July, but in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru not until August, and Costa Rica will not flatten its curve of infection until October, she said.

Countries, states and cities that relax restrictions too soon can be flooded with new COVID-19 cases, Etienne and other directors of the WHO’s regional branch, the Pan American Health Organization said in a virtual briefing from Washington.

“Complacency is our enemy in the fight against COVID-19,” she said, adding: “The battle is tough but it’s far from lost.”

In the United States, Washington state and New York are seeing very low numbers of new cases and deaths, but 27 other states are reporting exponential growth, Etienne said.

Several Caribbean countries and territories were able to curb transmission completely and have reported no new cases for several weeks, but they need to remain vigilant for months to come, Etienne said.

This past week Manaus, in Brazil saw its first day without reporting new deaths from COVID-19, after weeks of dealing with high mortality in the largest city in the Amazon.

Brazil has the second most fatal and widespread outbreak in the Americas after the United States and WHO directors said they have repeatedly asked the South American country to increase testing and have a consistent message to population.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the gravity of coronavirus and criticized quarantine and social distancing measures adopted by states and cities, sending a confusing signal to Brazilians, public health experts say.

Countries must be prepared to adjust course quickly if the epidemiological situation changes, the WHO director said.

Reopening is not merely a question of suspending travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders. It requires ample testing and adequate contact tracing to quickly detect and control new outbreaks, she said.

The Americas region as a whole reported 5.1 million cases and more than 247,000 deaths due to COVID-19 as of June 29.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia and Diego Oré in Mexico City; Editing by Marguerita Choy