Buenos Aires, Argentina — After a reprieve of several months, confirmed cases of COVID-19 are increasing in the southern tip of South America. But officials in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay hope high vaccination rates mean this latest wave won’t be as deadly as previous ones.
At the same time, there are fears that many people are not ready to resume the preventive measures that authorities deem necessary to ensure that cases remain manageable.
Cases have been steadily increasing for weeks, largely fueled by the BA.2 version of the omicron variant. In Chile, the number of weekly confirmed cases more than doubled at the end of May compared to the beginning of the month. In Argentina, cases increased by 146% during the same period, while in Uruguay the increase was almost 200%.
Although the number of positive tests remains far below previous waves, experts say the rise in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is a reminder that the pandemic is far from over.
Argentina’s Health Minister Carla Vizzotti recently said Argentina was “starting a fourth wave of COVID-19” while in Chile, Health Minister Begoña Yarza called the current moment a “point of inflection of the pandemic” and in Uruguay, President Luis Lacalle Pou, said he was “worried” and called on everyone to be “vigilant”.
The countries are part of a regional trend as cases have risen across the continent.
“COVID is on the rise again in the Americas,” Carissa Etienne, head of the Pan American Health Organization, said in an online news conference last week.
For many in the region, the sharp increase has forced them to think about the coronavirus again.
“There were many cases in my family after my birthday last week,” Marina Barroso, 40, said outside a testing center in a suburb of Buenos Aires. “The number of cases has really exploded.”
The sharp rise in cases has yet to translate into a significant number of hospitalizations and deaths. Authorities attribute high vaccination rates in the region, with more than 80% of the population in the three countries having received at least two doses.
“We are in a very different situation from previous waves because a large part of the population is immune,” said Claudia Salgueira, president of the Argentine Society of Infectious Diseases (SADI).
In Uruguay, the number of intensive care unit beds occupied by patients doubled from 1.5% at the start of the month to just over 3% in mid-May.
“Of course, mathematically we have doubled the cases but we are still talking about small numbers,” said Julio Pontet, president of the Uruguayan Society of Intensive Care Medicine who heads the intensive care unit at Pasteur Hospital in Montevideo. “What protects us from severe cases is our high level of vaccination.”
In previous waves, there was a lag between an increase in cases and hospitalizations “and the same is likely to happen now,” said Felipe Elorrieta, a mathematical epidemiology researcher at the University of Santiago. “Still, the death toll will be lower now.”
Chile is advantaged because it has the highest level of vaccination in the region and the highest rate of boosters in the world with more than 80% of people receiving at least a third dose, he said.
Chile has managed to ensure that such a large proportion of its population receives booster injections by essentially making life very difficult for those who avoid injections.
From June, Chile will block the “mobility pass” of any adult who received the first reminder more than six months ago and has not received a second reminder. Without the pass, Chileans are not allowed to go to restaurants, bars or attend large events.
In other countries in the region, some warn that the vaccination campaign is lacking due to the number of people who have not yet received a booster.
“There is a huge percentage of people who do not have the proper vaccination, four million people only have one dose, 10 million only have two and there is a group who do not have any “, said Hugo Pizzi, an infectious disease specialist who is a professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the Argentine National University of Córdoba. “There is an apathetic and defiant attitude among the population which is really infuriating.”
Adriana Valladares, a 41-year-old saleswoman in Buenos Aires, says the rise in cases is not going to change her way of life.
“I have three doses so I feel pretty protected,” she said. “I used to be really scared of this virus, but now I know a lot of people who got it and they were fine.”
Some find that it is no longer as easy as it once was to get tested.
“There is a huge increase in cases but they are not being tested anywhere,” said José Sabarto in Avellaneda, in the province of Buenos Aires. Sabarto said her daughter was diagnosed with COVID and a family member wanted to get tested but was having trouble finding active testing centers.
It is important that the testing infrastructure is “maintained and strengthened”, Etienne said.
“The truth is,” she added, “this virus isn’t going away any time soon.”