Brazil vs. Omicron: rising caseload, canceled flights, lines for Covid tests

By Carlos Meneses

Sao Paulo, Brazil, Jan 10 (EFE).- Canceled flights, long lines of people waiting to get Covid tests and an infection rate not seen in the past six months all mark a new phase of the coronavirus pandemic in Brazil, which – like the rest of the world – is being battered by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Brazilian authorities are working against the clock to prepare for an explosion in the Covid caseload “similar to the one that is occurring in countries of Europe, like Spain, the United Kingdom and France,” Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga told reporters on Monday.

Despite that, Queiroga said he does not expect the anticipated avalanche of positive cases will lead to an “explosion in hospital admissions” or the same proportion of deaths, due to the relatively favorable vaccination figures, with 67 percent of the public already fully vaccinated.

If the Health Ministry’s forecasts are correct, as put forward weeks ago by health experts, Brazil will exceed the daily new-case rate of 115,228 cases set on June 23, 2021.

On Sept. 18, health authorities reported 150,106 new Covid-19 cases, but that number was really an upward-adjusted figure that included thousands of diagnoses from 2020 and 2021 that had not been counted until then.

But there are also more pessimistic prognostications, like a recent one by the University of Washington in the United States that projected that Brazil could see one million daily cases within two weeks.

Regardless of the numbers, the “Omicron effect” is already being felt in both the health and economic sectors in Brazil, with its 213 million citizens, which is one of the countries that has been hardest hit by the pandemic with some 620,000 deaths and more than 22.5 million cases.

Covid-19 infections have practically quadrupled in the past week, no doubt a result of the yearend and holiday gatherings.

In Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the country’s two largest cities with about 20 million residents between them, it is suspected that a new record was set for newly detected cases in the first week of 2022.

That is the supposition because during that period an alleged hacker attack on the Health Ministry’s computers, which is only now being resolved, prevented the real-time release of pandemic information between December and the beginning of January.

But there are other figures that show the inexorable spread of Omicron. For example, in Sao Paulo the number of public network healthcare workers who are down with Covid tripled in the past month from 90 to 269, according to official figures.

In addition, the demand for diagnostic Covid tests has skyrocketed at pharmacies and walk-in clinics are filled with patients with flu-like symptoms, since besides Covid Brazil is also grappling with an outbreak of the H3N2 flu virus in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere summer.

The images of long lines of people waiting to get rapid Covid tests are virtually identical in all large Brazilian cities.

In that regard, Queiroga announced that this month the government will distribute “40 million rapid antigen tests, of which 14 million will be distributed in the next 15 days.”

The good news is that, for the moment, intensive care units are not filling up at the same rate and deaths associated with the coronavirus are remaining stable at around 100 per day.

The Omicron variant is also starting to affect the country’s fragile economic activity, especially in the airline sector.

Important airlines, like Latam and Azul, have been forced to cancel dozens of national and international flights with the sudden increase in illness among flight crews, whether from Covid-19 or the flu.

The Brazilian affiliate of Latam, the largest airline in Latin America, canceled 121 scheduled flights last Saturday and Sunday and asked its customers to confirm the status of their flights before coming to the airports.

In the case of Azul, at least 89 cancellations had to be made between last Thursday and Saturday after illness among its employees increased by 400 percent over the previous week.

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