Pandemic Outpaces Testing Capacity in Latin America

Latin America

BOGOTA – Test, trace and isolate. That has been the mantra of the World Health Organization (WHO) since coronavirus emerged as a global threat, but Latin American nations trying to implement the strategy face resource constraints.

The region of 650 million people has 2.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 120,000 fatalities.

If the disease continues to spread at the present rate, the regional death toll could top 400,000 in October, yet few Latin American countries are testing at the level recommended by the WHO.

“While everybody is making a great effort in this, the worst crisis of the century, they have to continue trying to expand the capacity to test, in all phases. It’s vital now to monitor the evolution of the pandemic and after controlling it, to continue doing tests in the re-openings because this is the best indicator,” Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), told EFE.

Jeffrey Shaman, head of the Climate and Health Program at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, said that testing combined with contact tracing enables the identification of individuals who need to be isolated to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Our World in Data, an online clearinghouse for scientific information based at the University of Oxford, ranks countries in terms of how many tests they do for every 1,000 inhabitants.

Bahrain leads all nations with more than 300 tests per 1,000 people. In Latin America, the biggest testers are Chile, with 56 for 1,000 residents; Panama, 28; El Salvador, 25; and Uruguay, which conducts 19 tests for every 1,000 inhabitants.

At the other end of the table is Mexico, where the number of COVID-19 tests is less than 4 per 1,000 people.

Mexican authorities also lag their counterparts in many other countries in the volume of testing relative to the number of positive results, an effort the WHO sees as crucial to bringing the pandemic under control.

The WHO says that a positive rate in the range of 80 percent to 90 percent indicates that only people with obvious symptoms are being tested and, by extension, that many cases are going undetected.

Australia and South Korea are among the countries conducting hundreds – or even thousands – of tests for every positive case, according to Our World in Data.

In Latin America, while Cuba (626 tests per positive result) and Uruguay (149) are doing a better job on this score than wealthy nations such as Canada and Spain, the figure for Mexico is just 1.5.

People need to realize that the country which reports the most cases is not “necessarily the one that is doing the worst” in dealing with the coronavirus, Marcos Espinal, who leads PAHO’s Department of Communicable Diseases and Environmental Determinants of Health, said this week.

Chile surpassed the United Kingdom on Friday to become No. 6 globally in the number of cases, with more than 288,000. The Andean nation has 6,051 confirmed COVID-19 fatalities and the disease is the suspected cause in roughly 3,000 additional deaths.

The Chilean government has carried out upwards of 1.1 million tests, the most of any country in the region.

Mexico, with fewer cases but nearly 30,000 deaths, has conducted the fewest tests of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

For Dr. Jose David Urbaez Brito, a member of the Brazilian Society of Infectious Diseases, judging the success of a testing program is not just a question of volume, but of how officials use the data obtained through tests.

Authorities in Uruguay carried out more than 67,000 tests among a population of 3.5 million. The total number of confirmed cases stands at 950 – including nearly 800 people who have recovered – and the death toll is 28.

Montevideo’s handling of the crisis has made Uruguay the only Latin American nation whose inhabitants will be allowed to enter the European Union as the bloc resumes accepting international visitors.

Brazil, second only to the United States in coronavirus cases (1.5 million) and fatalities (62,000), is carrying out only 2.4 tests per confirmed infection, according to Columbia’s Shaman.

More testing and contact tracing are “desperately” needed, he tells EFE, contending that the disease is spread mainly by people who don’t realize they are infected.

Carriers of the virus who are asymptomatic, or suffering only mild symptoms that they mistake for a cold, will tend not to seek medical attention, Shaman points out.

His view is shared by Urbaez Brito, who advocates having public health workers go door-to-door in search of people who might have COVID-19, which has been the backbone of the Cuban government’s response to the pandemic.

Along those lines, the Chilean government has announced home testing and City Hall in Sao Paulo is sending out teams to conduct rapid tests in residential areas with the aim of mapping the spread of the virus.

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