Omicron variant slams Argentina during summer holiday season

By Javier Castro Bugarin

Buenos Aires, Jan 11 (EFE).- The Omicron variant is driving a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Argentina and putting testing centers and primary care facilities under severe strain, although authorities have been reluctant to impose restrictions that would put a damper on the summer holiday period.

According to official figures, the number of confirmed cases began to rise gradually in mid-December and then skyrocketed at the end of 2021.

A total of 659,870 coronavirus cases have been reported in the South American country over the past seven days (with a sky-high case positivity rate of 58 percent).

Argentina leads all of Latin America in cases per 100,000 inhabitants (1,929) during that period, ahead of Uruguay (1,400), Panama (897) and Bolivia (798), according to the scientific online publication Our World in Data, although the numbers from Brazil were not included.

“With a case positivity rate above 50 percent, we’re not at 110,000 cases (per day), but rather at a much higher number, which could be between 150,000 and 200,000. It’s an extraordinarily high number,” Jorge Geffner, a biochemist and professor of immunology at the University of Buenos Aires, told Efe.

This tsunami of cases not only has saturated public and private testing centers put also pushed primary care and hospital emergency systems to the point of collapse,” Elena Obieta, a member of the Argentine Society of Infectology, told Efe.

“Because while you’re having to administer the test to 400 people, from eight in the morning to seven in the afternoon, in the meantime you have a motorcycle accident, a man with a heart attack … So it’s a problem,” the physician said.

Even so, she said the impact in terms of hospitalizations and deaths was greater during the two previous waves, “albeit with fewer cases.”

Indeed, the number of deaths has remained stable, with an average of 25 fatalities per day over the past month, thanks to an immunization campaign that has seen more than 73 percent of the population receive an initial two-dose vaccine series.

Besides the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, Geffner said two other factors explain the unprecedented explosion of cases: a lack of individual responsibility and authorities’ reluctance to impose effective restrictions.

“In Buenos Aires province, where was there a spike in cases? On the coast, because it’s the place where young people gather in large numbers,” he said.

The national government has only required people to show proof of full vaccination (pase sanitario) before allowing them to attend large gatherings during the Southern Hemisphere summer holiday season, refraining from imposing other restrictions even though the number of patients in intensive care has risen from 1,102 to 1,967 in just 10 days.

Geffner said the government’s approach has been a mistake, considering that only 16 percent of the population has received a third dose and hundreds of thousands of people (the immunocompromised, people with one or more comorbidities and unvaccinated minors) are susceptible to contracting a serious illness.

His recommendations for mitigating the impact of the Omicron variant include a strong rollout of additional doses, the extension of the “pase sanitario” to other activities and even mandatory vaccination for subgroups of the population most exposed to the virus. EFE


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