WASHINGTON – The Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr. Carissa Etienne Tuesday warned that three out of 10 people, or nearly 325 million, are at increased risk of developing severe coronavirus (COVID-19) illness due to underlying health conditions.
The Dominican-born Dr. Etienne said certain underlying, chronic conditions like diabetes, kidney disease and hypertension, as well as infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, or immunosuppression, place people at increased risk for more severe COVID-19 disease.
“Unfortunately, many of these medical conditions are widespread in the Americas, which leaves our region more vulnerable to severe illness,” she told a media briefing, adding that to help address this, PAHO has developed a new data model in partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that provides a more accurate picture of the prevalence of health conditions in the Americas.
“What we see is worrisome. We are talking about 186 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean,” she said, and in the United States, Canada and Mexico, one in three people are at increased risk of severe COVID-19.
In the Americas, there are 43 million people at high risk, “which means they would require hospitalization due to their underlying health conditions. And within this group, men are twice as likely as women to be at high risk of developing severe COVID-19,” she said.
The PAHO official said people over the age of 65 are at greater risk of experiencing more severe disease, since the likelihood of developing multiple health conditions increases with age.
“But working-age adults – which refers to people from 15-64 – are not immune, as many of them live with one or more underlying health condition. Diabetes and chronic kidney disease, in particular, are especially prevalent among adult populations,” she added.
The new tool developed with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will help countries with specific data “to adapt their COVID-19 responses and better protect vulnerable populations from chronic conditions that threaten their health,” Dr. Etienne said.
She said strategies to protect people with underlying conditions, which range “from self-isolation with assistance, to providing adequate resources and support systems,” can help countries reduce deaths among vulnerable groups, flatten the curve and preserve the capacity of health services.
“With the surge in COVID-19 patients, many health systems lack the staff, space and supplies to adequately offer routine care. Such disruptions have delayed treatments for cancer patients and dialysis for those with chronic kidney disease. People with diabetes are running out of insulin, and HIV patients have to worry about continuing their treatment.
“With the new tool, countries can tailor their response to protect vulnerable groups from risk and implement innovative programs to help people safely and more consistently manage their conditions. This includes increasing telemedicine capabilities and establishing surge points for care, which allows people with chronic conditions to be seen by a doctor away from suspected COVID-19 patients,” she said.
Dr. Etienne said countries should ensure that vulnerable groups are advised to connect with their health care providers to ensure they have the medications and supplies they need to safely manage their conditions.
“This is also the time to rely on their friends and families to run errands so they can minimize trips outside their homes. And as much as possible, people should maintain a healthy routine at home that includes regular exercise and nutritious food, Dr. Etienne added.
Meanwhile, PAHO said that as of Monday, 7.7 million COVID-19 cases have been reported and more than 311,000 people have died in the Americas. In the last week there were almost 900,000 new cases and some 22,000 deaths, most in Brazil, Mexico, and the United States.
In the Amazon basin, COVID-19 continues to spread with significant surges in localized hot spots in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Pero, Dr. Etienne noted, while Central American countries “are reporting their highest weekly increases of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began”.