• The San Juan Daily Star

Cases surge in Argentina, raising questions about what is to come in South America

A coronavirus testing center in Buenos Aires last week.

By Daniel Politi

A few weeks ago, many Argentines thought the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was behind them. Cases were down, vaccination rates were high and once-full intensive care units had plenty of beds to spare. The president’s spokeswoman, Gabriela Cerruti, even declared “the pandemic is over” in a mid-November post on Twitter.

Then came a Christmastime wake-up call.

What had become a steady stream of new cases surged last week — and the numbers keep rising. The sharp increase marks a startling turnaround for Argentina and is raising questions about what is to come for other countries in a region that has already suffered greatly during the pandemic.

South America — led by Brazil, which has the world’s second-highest death toll, and Peru, which had an even higher per capita death rate — had been the epicenter of the pandemic earlier this year. But infections fell sharply as vaccination rates soared.

“There is a real risk of a regional increase,” said Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri, incident manager for COVID-19 for the Pan American Health Organization, a division of the World Health Organization.

COVID-19 cases have also been steadily increasing in Bolivia, with signs of a potential uptick in Uruguay and Paraguay.

Even though South America is currently in the middle of summer, when people spend more time outdoors, the holidays also bring an increase in travel. And there “has really been a decrease in the implementation of social distancing measures,” Aldighieri said.

In Argentina, both the delta variant and the highly infectious omicron variant are circulating, officials there said, but delta remains predominant.

Omicron has been detected in 25 countries and territories of Latin America and the Caribbean, but it will be weeks before its potential effect across the region becomes clear, Aldighieri said, adding that genomic sequencing is limited in many countries and omicron will be coexisting with other variants.

Over the past seven days in Argentina, an average of 15,690 new cases have been reported daily, according to data compiled by The New York Times. From Monday to Tuesday, 33,902 new cases were reported, the highest figure since June 2, according to the Health Ministry. The city of Buenos Aires, and central Córdoba province, which has been particularly hard-hit, reported the highest figures since the pandemic began.

Testing centers were nearly empty only weeks ago. Now lines are long, and the positivity rate is nearing a staggering 30%, according to Health Ministry figures.

Despite the sharp increase in cases, President Alberto Fernández on Tuesday dismissed the possibility of imposing mobility restrictions at the height of summer holidays. The country endured one of the world’s strictest quarantines early on in the pandemic.

For now, officials are optimistic that while the number of cases has been soaring, that has not translated into overrun intensive care units and higher death tolls.

“In comparison to other waves, the number we have now is of fewer than 1,000 people in intensive care units, and the number of deaths is very stable,” the health minister, Carla Vizzotti, said in a radio interview Tuesday, pushing citizens to get vaccinated as the best way to combat the current uptick in cases.

Even though South America got a later start than much of the world in inoculating its population, it now has a higher vaccination rate than Europe, North America and Asia, and significantly lower vaccine skepticism.

Chile has fully vaccinated 87% of its population, one of the highest rates in the world. Argentina’s population is now 72% fully vaccinated; Brazil’s, 68%. By comparison, the United States has fully vaccinated 62% of its population.

“The impact of the vaccination campaign in South America has been impressive,” Aldighieri said, adding that “there was a clear impact on the mortality rate.”

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