By Giovanna Ferullo M.
Panama City, Dec 30 (EFE).- Panama will go through a critical period in early 2022 due to the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, but it intends to deal with this situation by vaccination, which has been generally accepted by the public, along with using facemasks, the head of the National Science, Technology and Innovation Secretariat (Senacyt), Dr. Eduardo Ortega-Barria, told EFE.
“We’re going to have a critical period during the first weeks (of 2022) due to Omicron but I know that we’re going to handle it adequately,” said Ortega-Barria, who is also an adviser to the Vaccine Research Consortium, a key entity in selecting the Pfizer and AstraZeneca anti-Covid vaccines for use in the country.
Panama, with 4.28 million inhabitants, on Dec. 20 reported its first case of the Omicron strain and on Thursday at least 46 new cases were confirmed, a figure that Health Minister Luis Francisco Sucre said could double within the next few hours.
Omicron arrived just as Panama had already experienced an acceleration of the pandemic – which had been expected because of the traditional parties and get-togethers in November, extensive traveling by the public in December and a decline in vaccine effectiveness – after a period during which the spread of the coronavirus had been kept under control.
“I believe that we have community spread of Omicron that is (resulting) in an increase in the number of (daily) cases, the majority of which are still caused by the Delta variant, combined “with a growing number of Omicron” cases, the expert in infectious pediatric diseases said.
The Central American country, where 81.4 percent of the people age 12 or older have been fully vaccinated and 90.4 percent have had at least one dose of anti-Covid vaccine, has reported more than 1,300 daily cases in recent days and a Covid test positivity rate of more than 11 percent.
That is the situation after fewer than 500 new daily cases and a test positivity rate below 5 percent had become the norm.
The control of the pandemic in Panama for several months this year due to the country’s extensive vaccination program, the biosecurity measures put in place and the meticulous tracing of cases all have prevented Panama from experiencing a disastrous third wave of the Delta variant, Ortega said.
Delta, which is the dominant strain and accounts for almost 100 percent of the cases in Panama so far, was managed in Panama in a “masterly way,” coinciding with the point at which the population was being vaccinated en masse and at one of the fastest rates in the region, Ortega added.
But Omicron “has the ability to transmit itself three to six times more efficiently than Delta. That is bad news. However, there is good news, too: the vaccines protect (people), in particular the booster shot, which is 75 percent effective against slight and moderate forms of the infection, and even greater protection against serious forms,” he went on to say.
Panama has begun administering booster shots to people age 16 and older, but the rate has been very slow. However, it accelerated substantially after the detection of Omicron and the most recent report is that at least 329,175 booster doses have been administered.
Omicron “seems to be less serious (at) causing hospitalization,” and so, apart from focusing attention on the number of cases, one must focus on the hospital capacity and work to keep mortality at the lowest levels possible, the researcher said.
“An important concept is the issue that (Omicron causes) a mild flu, a simple flu. OK, it’s a simple flu if you’re vaccinated, if you have the booster you’re going to be able to handle it more efficiently. But it’s not a simple flu for people who aren’t vaccinated and today in Panama we have a significant number of our people who have not gotten vaccinated because they (still) have not been targeted by the vaccination (campaign),” he said.
Ortega emphasized that despite the increase in the number of new Covid cases in recent weeks, the hospitalization figures and intensive care unit admission figures remain low and “that is one effect of the vaccines, without any doubt, of the systematic use of facemasks, something that can help us deal with Omicron.”
He also noted the government’s plans to vaccinate – possibly during the first quarter of 2022 – children ages 5 to 11, to ensure that they are better protected while attending in-person school classes.
“I’m looking at 2022 with great optimism,” he said, adding that despite the expected critical period during January “we’re going to start the school year in March (and) we’re going to be able to open the schools to have the greatest number of children attending.”