PAHO Director Calls for Protection of Health Workers as COVID-19 Advances

WASHINGTON D.C. – Warning that cases of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) have doubled in a week in the Region of the Americas (which includes countries in North and South America), Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F. Etienne April 7 urged countries to take measures that protect health care workers to ensure they have access to the personal protective equipment and supplies they need to care for patients affected by the disease.

“Shortages of the most basic protective equipment leave doctors, nurses and other frontline workers dangerously vulnerable as they care for COVID-19 patients,” Etienne said. “A pandemic like COVID-19 would overwhelm any health system, but its impact on those without sufficient health workers will be devastating. Limited supplies of gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, and gowns can lead to a wave of preventable infections among health workers.”

Etienne urged countries to work together in providing protective equipment.

“Countries must work together to ensure that supply chains are able to deliver protective equipment to the hospitals and health centers who need it most,” Etienne said. “Solidarity and coordination among countries will be essential to ensure we make the most of the limited supplies available.”

Caring for health workers’ needs – both mental and physical – is very important at this time, according to Etienne.

“We must also care for our health workers through support networks that allow them to preserve their mental and physical health,” Etienne said. “We must celebrate them for the heroes they are and protect them from stigma. We should encourage and admire our health workers, not fear and disrespect them.”

Noting that Tuesday, April 7, is World Health Day, Etienne said this is “a time to acknowledge and celebrate doctors, nurses, midwives and the many other people working to keep our communities healthy. Our health workers deserve our recognition, our praise, and our gratitude. Above all, they deserve to be able to protect themselves while they do their jobs.”

Through April 6, 384,435 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the Americas and 11,270 people have lost their lives.

“In just seven days, we witnessed cases and deaths more than double in our region,” Etienne said. “The pandemic is accelerating rapidly, and I urge governments to prepare and respond at the same speed.”

Etienne urged countries to follow PAHO guidelines and recommendations including social distancing measures to lessen the burden on health systems.

“All of us need to be prepared for more difficult weeks ahead,” Etienne said. “Now is not the time to hoard and stockpile. It is a time for easing export restrictions and embracing flexible regulations that enable access in the places that will be the hardest hit in the next few weeks. Governments and the private sector should also seek innovative solutions to boost production and repurpose industrial capacity to expand supplies,” she said.

In addition to developing technical guidelines, PAHO has trained national staff on the reorganization of health services and has also advised countries regarding stocks of medical supplies and personal protection equipment (PPEs). It has supported countries to obtain shipments of PPEs to 35 countries and 1 territory, and COVID test kits to 25 countries, among other actions.

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