Global COVID-19 total surges past 17 million

Nursing home
nursing home

Gilbert Mercier / Flickr cc

The global COVID-19 total today crossed the 17 million case threshold, a day that also marked 6 months since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) under the International Health Regulations.

It only took 4 days for the pandemic total to rise from 16 million to 17 million, and on the day the WHO declared the PHEIC on Jan 30, there were nearly 8,000 cases in the world, most of them in China. Today, the global total climbed to 17,126,081 cases, and 669,055 people have died from their infections, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

Protecting nursing homes

At a WHO briefing today, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said as the world learns to live with the virus, one of the key steps is to protect vulnerable people, including older people, especially those in nursing homes. He said in many countries, 40% of COVID-19 deaths have been among nursing home residents, and in some high-income countries, 80% of deaths have been in that population.

Given the importance of the problem, Tedros said the WHO has released a policy brief on preventing and managing COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes. The document covers government policy actions to protect people in those settings, which include steps such as integrating long-term care into national response plans. It also includes actions for nursing homes to take, including real-world examples.

Tedros said the guidance is geared toward ensuring that residents receive care that respects their rights, freedoms, and dignity. "I especially want to acknowledge those who work in long-term care facilities all over the world, who are doing heroic work to save lives and protect those in their care. I salute you," he said.

Though a large focus has been on the threat to older people, younger people are at risk, too, he said. Evidence suggests that recent case rises in some countries are driven by younger people letting down their guard during the Northern Hemisphere summer. Tedros repeated that young people aren't invincible and can pass the virus to others, and he called on the group to be leaders and drivers of change in taking steps to limit the spread of COVID-19.

In another WHO development, Tedros announced that the group has formed a technical advisory group on behavioral insights and sciences for health, which is made up of 22 experts from 16 countries. The group, chaired by Cass Sunstein, JD, a legal scholar at Harvard University, will advise the WHO on how to increase and improve the use of behavioral and social sciences in a range of health areas, including COVID-19.

Latin America persists as epicenter

Also at today's briefing, Mike Ryan, MD, who leads the WHO's health emergencies program, said South and Central America are epicenters of the pandemic, and there's much work to be done in complex social settings that range from crowded slums to remote indigenous populations. "Progress is being made, but Latin America is still in a big fight to battle the disease."

At a separate Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) briefing today, its director Carissa Etienne, MBBS, MSc, said the region has reported about 9 million cases. Of those, 4.5 million cases are from Latin America, which has reported nearly 190,000 deaths.

Transmission is accelerating, and the pandemic had triggered a triple crisis in the region by ravaging health systems, fracturing social protections, and destabilizing economies. To address the challenges, PAHO today unveiled a joint report with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) on the economic challenges in the region, which says that recovery will only occur when countries flatten their epidemic curves.

"We have seen time and time again that full economic activity cannot resume unless we have the virus under control," Etienne said. "And to attempt otherwise places lives at risk and extends uncertainty brought by the pandemic."

The report proposes a three-phased approach to mitigate the pandemic effects and rebuild economies in a sustainable and inclusive way. It also says inequalities among groups, which include older people, informal workers, women, indigenous groups, people of African descent, migrants, and people with disabilities, make groups vulnerable to the disease and its impact.

As one of the steps, PAHO and ECLAC recommend that countries invest at least 6% of their gross domestic product in public health, including primary care.

In country developments, Brazil, despite its ongoing surge of cases, reopened to international tourists as long as they have health insurance, Reuters reported. Yesterday, the country reported about 70,000 cases and 1,550 deaths. And in Ecuador, the country's capital, Quito, is now the country's main hot spot, and a surge of cases over the past weeks has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes.

Australia, Asia developments

In Australia, health officials reported a record daily total, with more than 700 cases and 14 deaths, Reuters reported. Most were reported from Victoria state, where an outbreak began in the suburbs of Melbourne, and area that is on lockdown. The state's outbreak has spread to nursing homes.

As cases mount, state health officials have imposed new measures, which include wearing face masks outside and more distancing restrictions.

Japan reported a record daily high 1,266 cases today, with the virus spreading in Tokyo as well as other parts of the country, including Iwate prefecture, which had not reported any cases before. The case rises come amid a campaign to boost domestic travel, which President Shinzo Abe's administration has pushed as a way to revive Japan's tourism sector.

Elsewhere, China today reported 105 cases today, 102 of them locally acquired, and mostly from an ongoing outbreak in Xinjiang province, according to a daily update from the National Health Commission. There are also a few cases from Liaoning province and one more from Beijing. And in Hong Kong, the Center for Health Protection today reported 149 more cases, all but 4 of them locally acquired.

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