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COVID-19 cases rise for first time in seven weeks

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A healthcare worker checks the temperature of a patient at a hospital in Nonthaburi Province, Thailand. UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

After six consecutive weeks of decline, COVID-19 cases worldwide increased last week for the first time, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday. 

Four of the agency’s six regions reported a rise in numbers, with Africa and the Western Pacific excluded. 

“This is disappointing, but not surprising”, said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking during his biweekly press briefing from Geneva. 

“Some of it appears to be due to relaxing of public health measures, continued circulation of variants, and people letting down their guard.” 

The jump in cases comes as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines continues. 

“Vaccines will help to save lives, but if countries rely solely on vaccines, they’re making a mistake”, Tedros warned, underscoring the importance of basic public health measures such as testing, contact tracing, wearing masks and avoiding crowds. 

‘Encouraging’ signs 

Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire began vaccinating health care workers on Monday, becoming the first countries to benefit from a global mechanism for ensuring vaccine equity.   

Through the COVAX Facility, WHO and our partners are working to ensure every country can begin vaccination within the first 100 days of the year.  

COVAX will deliver 11 million doses to countries this week.  By the end of May, some 240 million doses will be allocated to 142 participating countries. 

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s Chief Scientist, pointed to “encouraging” signs as the world continues to gear up for what is the largest vaccine deployment in history. 

“We’ve seen early data from countries where vaccination campaigns started months ago, the impact that this is having on reducing hospitalizations, reducing deaths, particularly in the older age groups, amongst the vulnerable. We’ve even seen very encouraging data in reduction in infections among health care workers who have received the vaccine”, she said. 

“So, these are still early days, but the signs are encouraging; the safety profile is encouraging. About 250 million doses have been given worldwide, and so far, there have been no major safety signals, so that is reassuring as well.” 

Concern for Tigray region 

WHO explained that some countries have received COVAX vaccines early due to several factors such as the level of government preparedness, but logistical challenges in distributing vaccines, which include labelling, packaging and shipping, can also affect deployment. 

Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO Executive Director, spoke about the difficulty in reaching conflict areas such as the Tigray region in Ethiopia, where government and regional forces have been fighting since November. 

He said the situation is of grave concern, as water, sanitation, essential health services and COVID-19 intervention have been disrupted. Many people are living in displacement camps, increasing risk of diarrhoeal disease, malaria and other illneses. 

WHO has worked to provide essential supplies to cover 450,000 people, or roughly 10 per cent of the population, for three months, Dr. Ryan told journalists.  

“Our primary aim as an organization, wherever we work, is to ensure that all people have access to the basic, essential human right of access to basic health care”, he said. 

“We will work with the Ministry of Health; we will work with health cluster partners and anybody else who can help us to provide better access to the population there.” 

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Health & Wellness

COVID-19 infections approaching highest rates ever

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COVID-19 infections are approaching their highest rates since the pandemic began just over a year ago, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Friday. 

“Around the world, cases and deaths are continuing to increase at worrying rates”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking during his regular briefing. 

“Globally, the number of new cases per week has nearly doubled over the past two months. This is approaching the highest rate of infection that we have seen so far during the pandemic.” 

As of Friday, there were 138.5 million cases worldwide, and more than 2.9 million deaths. The pandemic was declared in March 2020. 

Tedros said some countries which had previously avoided widespread virus transmission are now witnessing “steep increases” in infections, with Papua New Guinea serving as an example. 

Concern for Papua New Guinea 

The Pacific island nation, which has a population of around eight million, had managed to keep the disease at bay. Up until the beginning of the year, there were less than 900 cases and nine deaths. 

Currently, more than 9,300 cases and 82 deaths have been recorded, and all 22 provinces have been affected. The country’s health Minister, Jelta Wong, who also briefed journalists, said half of all cases and deaths were reported in the last month alone, and health workers are increasingly among those infected. 

 “Our biggest challenge is seemingly to the late adaption or acceptance of the ‘new normal’ and the disbelief in the disease itself,” he said. “This overlaps into much infodemic – and conspiracies and misinformation on the safety and the efficiency of the vaccines.”  

The situation in Papua New Guinea, or PNG, is concerning, Tedros said, as it could lead to a much larger epidemic.  Late last month, Australia donated some 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to its neighbour, and an additional 132,000 doses were delivered this week through the COVAX solidarity initiative. 

Vaccine equity now 

Tedros said PNG was a perfect example of why vaccine equity is so important, an issue which the WHO chief and other senior UN officials have repeatedly highlighted. 

Earlier this week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the Financing for Development Forum that “to end the pandemic for good, we need equitable access to vaccines for everyone, everywhere.”  

WHO continues to assess the pandemic’s evolution. Its Emergency Committee on COVID-19 met this week and Tedros said he will receive its latest advice on Monday. 

Update on virus variants 

Monitoring of the COVID-19 virus variant first detected in India continues, WHO said on Friday. 

The B 1 617 variant, which has two mutations, emerged at the end of last year and cases have been reported in other countries across Asia and North America. 

“This is one variant of interest that we are following,” said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the agency’s Technical Lead on COVID-19. 

“Having two of these mutations, which have been seen in other variants around the world, are concerning because there’s a similarity in these mutations that confer increased transmissibility, for example. Some of these mutations result in reduced neutralization which may have an impact on our counter measures, including the vaccines.” 

Strengthening surveillance 

COVID-19 variants have been reported in the United Kingdom and South Africa, while a third that was first detected in Japan is circulating in Brazil and elsewhere. 

Dr. Van Kerkhove said WHO and partners have been bringing together countries, researchers and different networks, to strengthen global monitoring and assessment of the new coronavirus

“It’s really important that that assessment is robust so we understand what each variant of interest and variant of concern means for transmission, for severity and for impacts on diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines”, she said. 

COVID-19 vaccines developed so far have been effective against the variants, she added, “but we want to have a system in place should there need to be a change in some of our counter measures going forward.”

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Clarity still needed on effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccine passports

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Being vaccinated against COVID-19 may not prevent transmission and vaccination passports may not be an “effective strategy” for restarting travel, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned on Tuesday.

“At this stage, we would not like to see vaccination passports as a requirement for entry or exit because we are not sure at this stage that the vaccine prevents transmissions,” said WHO spokesperson Dr Margaret Harris, just ahead of World Health Day on 7 April 2021.

Supply and demand

Dr. Harris added that vaccine passports may not be an effective strategy as “not everyone has access to vaccines and there are groups in society who are excluded…We are still waiting on adequate supplies to provide the vaccines to all the countries that need them.”

Highlighting how COVID-19 has impacted some people more than others, Dr. Harris said that the virus “has really exposed the stark inequities in access to and coverage of health services…Groups who already faced discrimination, poverty, social exclusion, difficult living and working conditions were the hardest hit by the pandemic”.

World Health Day plea

For this year’s World Health Day, the UN agency has urged countries to build a fairer, healthier world post-COVID-19. Dr. Harris called for action to “put in place policies and allocate resources so the most vulnerable groups can see their condition improve faster”.

This means “improving living conditions for all”, tackling “poverty and health inequities”, building sustainable societies and strong economies, and promoting “a more equitable sharing of resources, ensuring food security and nutrition” and turning “the tide on climate change”.  There is so much work to do”, she said.

Latest WHO data from Tuesday 6 March at the time of posting, indicates that there have been 131,309,792 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 2,854,276 deaths globally, reported to WHO.

By the end of 5 April, a total of 604,032,357 vaccine doses have been administered.

Regionally, infections and deaths remain highest in the Americas, with 56,880,123 million confirmed cases, followed by Europe (46,085,310 million), South-East Asia (15,438,907), Eastern Mediterranean (7,785,717), Africa (3,126,037) and Western Pacific (1,992,953).

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How a Digital Algorithm is Helping Doctors Treat COVID-19 Patients

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Moscow’s backup hospitals and inpatient clinics for treatment of the coronavirus infection have started using a new solution as part of the unified digital healthcare platform. The News2 app, which is integrated into the Unified Medical Information and Analysis System (EMIAS), helps physicians assess the severity of a patient’s COVID-19 symptoms and risks of deterioration, and suggests adjustments to treatment tactics where necessary.

The system is operated on tablets with specialized software. These allow medics to read the QR codes on a patient’s hospital identification bracelet or on an identification sheet in an inpatient clinic and enter data on their condition: heart rate, blood oxygen saturation level, blood pressure, body temperature, and respiration rate. The system then calculates the result and assigns the patient to a risk group, highlighting the relevant category with a specific color.

The patient’s risk score is entered in their electronic medical record. Physicians can then review both the patient’s current integrated risk score on the international NEWS2 scale and any changes to it at any time, together with the baseline data used to generate the information. Use of this clinical scale significantly improves patient safety, ensuring that examinations are conducted at predetermined time intervals and that specific indicators are measured, resulting in timely and optimal adjustments to patient therapy.

The benefits of the system for physicians are obvious: when the risk score increases from 3 to 5, for instance, the clinician can simply decide whether more treatment is necessary or, conversely, satisfy himself that the treatment is effective if the score subsequently falls.

The NEWS2 scale is used around the world to assess the severity of a patient’s condition by interpreting results based on a sum of scores. These are used to generate a final score for assigning the patient to a specific risk group.

Digital solutions in Moscow’s healthcare sector are being implemented jointly by the city’s Department of Health and Department of Information Technology.

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