Omicron slamming S. American hospitals as workers fall ill

APPublished: 2022-01-18 10:45:12
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“Forty percent of our staff is on sick leave," Marcia Fernandes Lucas, health secretary for the municipality of Sao Joao de Meriti, in Rio's metropolitan region, told the AP in her office. "We are able to work with these 60% by redeploying them (between health centers).”

Public hospitals in Bolivia are operating at 50-70% capacity due to the high number of infections among health care workers, according to the Bolivian doctors' union. In Santa Cruz, the country’s most populous city, the Children’s Hospital is overwhelmed — but less by its number of patients than the amount of staff falling ill, according to Freddy Rojas, its vice director. Last week, the facility stopped admitting new patients.

A health worker applies a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a community health center in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022. Brasilia started the COVID-19 vaccination of children between ages 5 and 11. [Photo: AP/Eraldo Peres]

“There has been a collapse, because we don't have replacements,” said José Luís Guaman, interim president of the doctors' union in Santa Cruz.

Such is the risk of medical services grinding to a halt in Argentina's Buenos Aires province — the country's most populous — that health workers have been allowed to return to work even if coming into contact with someone infected, provided they are asymptomatic and vaccinated. Other provinces in Argentina are expected to adopt the same rules in the coming days, in line with the health ministry's recently-issued guidelines.

Similar measures are being enacted by authorities in France and the U.S., where omicron has been putting hospital systems to the test for weeks.

Chile has seen a constant increase in its number of cases, prompting the reactivation of public- and private-sector hospital beds, but so far the country hasn’t experienced hospital overload. Peru has also seen case its numbers rise, but its facilities aren’t yet suffering.

The Pan American Health Organization said Wednesday it expects omicron to become the predominant coronavirus variant in the Americas in the coming week. Ten countries in the region — especially in the Caribbean — didn't reach the goal set by the World Health Organization to have 40% of citizens fully vaccinated by end-2021.

While a smaller fraction of people develop serious illness from the the highly-transmissible variant, the crush of contagion and resulting strain on hospitals means omicron shouldn't be underestimated, said Lula, of the Brazilian health secretariat council.

“People have to understand that the argument that omicron is ‘mild’ is false,” Lula said. ___

Calatrava reported from Buenos Aires. Reporters Carlos Valdez and Paola Flores contributed to this report from La Paz, Bolivia, Mario Lobão from Rio de Janeiro, Patricia Luna and Eva Vergara from Santiago, Chile, and Franklin Briceño from Lima, Peru.

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