Friday 3 February 2023

How Latin America Is Faring against Omicron

Even with lower hospitalization rates, Omicron threatens disruption. From tests to shots to restrictions, here’s how the region is handling the latest Covid tsunami.

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Q REPORTS (AS/COA) – Omicron has made its unwelcome arrival in Latin America. After first appearing in the region in early December, this new variant, along with Delta, is driving up infection rates in many countries to all-time pandemic highs.

Uruguayans wait in line for booster shots. (AP)

To give a sense of the shift, on December 10, the seven-day rolling average of cases in the region was about 20,000 per day. One month later, the figure increased tenfold to 200,000. Argentina accounts for almost half, with its over 109,000 daily cases triple its previous record high in May 2021.

But no two waves are the same. And there’s evidence this one will not be as deadly as its predecessors, which resulted in Latin America tallied about a third of the world’s Covid deaths despite representing less than 10 percent of the global population.

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For one, much of Latin America has steadily executed its vaccination campaign over the past year, with South America counting as the region with the highest vaccination rate in the world with over 62 percent of the population vaccinated at the end of 2021. And though Omicron can spread among the vaccinated, the variant is less severe than previous strains, particularly for those who’ve gotten their shots. That doesn’t mean it’s not disruptive and, for many, deadly. In Argentina, for example, hospitals are already overwhelmed to the point where doctors are struggling to maintain full care for both Covid and non-Covid patients.

How will Latin America fare in this new wave? That depends on the region’s approach to managing the flood of cases and hospitalizations. AS/COA Online looks at how the region is faring when it comes to three mitigation areas: testing, vaccinating, and restricting.


While it’s clear that Omicron is washing over much of Latin America, understanding the severity of the current wave is challenging due limits to testing. The region already had low testing rates, and Omicron’s high transmissibility is creating rapid spikes in infections that puts a strain on testing capacities. Further, more complex sequencing tests need to be performed to confirm which variant a patient has, meaning it is difficult to ascertain what variant is spreading. Most countries’ official tallies have Delta cases higher than Omicron cases, though this may be because Delta is more likely to land a patient in the hospital, where sequencing is performed.

Meanwhile, Brazil is experiencing a Covid data blackout due to a cyberattack on the national health system, making it difficult to determine the status of its current outbreak. Still, private testing suggests that the caseload in Latin America’s largest country is formidable.

The need for extensive testing has spelled trouble for Latin America, a region with low testing rates and where home test kids are either prohibitively expensive or not yet approved by national regulators. Already, many countries are seeing long lines at testing sites, shortages, and price spikes. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who announced on January 10 that he had Covid for the second time, encouraged those with symptoms not to get tested, assume they have the disease, and quarantine. Similarly, in Argentina, Health Minister Carla Vizzotti said that a Covid diagnosis could be made without a test if symptoms suggested positivity.

One metric helpful for understanding the current wave is the positivity rate, which measures what percentage of Covid tests in a country come back positive. Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico all have positivity rates above 50 percent as of January 12. Colombia and Ecuador are over 30 percent.


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The vaccines currently being distributed across the world were formulated to protect against the original strain of Covid, known as Alpha. Vaccination campaigns, which advanced exponentially in Latin America in the summer and fall of 2021, helped lower case rates by reducing contagion.

However, Omicron has a high rate of breakthrough cases, which are infections among vaccinated people, and one study suggest it is 2.7 to 3.7 times more infectious than Delta for vaccinated people. Two shots of the mRNA vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, offer 30 to 40 percent protection against Omicron infection, far lower rates than the 70 to 80 percent protection afforded against the original strain. Non-mRNA vaccines, like Johnson & Johnson, Sputnik, and Sinopharm—all widely used in Latin America—are less effective in offering protection from infection.

Another factor affecting vaccine efficacy against Omicron is that vaccines become less effective over time, starting after a little more than three months. Many of Latin America’s vaccinated were inoculated months ago, meaning their immunity is reduced. It’s part of why booster shots are considered critical protection from variants, as they can reduce the symptoms and severity of the disease, which lowers hospitalization rates.

Countries in Latin America have lowered booster eligibility requirements in anticipation of Omicron. In Peru, for example, citizens can now get boosters after three, rather than five, months after their second dose.


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With cases spiking, the question becomes: will Latin American countries revive restrictions to stem the spread of Omicron?

In some cases yes, but largely no. There have been some changes in travel policies, such as Argentina increasing testing requirements for those aiming to enter the country. In Brazil, Carnaval celebrations are being canceled or curtailed.

Peru, which has the world’s highest Covid death rate per capita with over 6,200 deaths per million as of January 12, has the most extensive restrictions. A national curfew, the closure of land borders, and reduced capacity at indoor establishments are all measures in place in the Andean country. Its neighbor Ecuador also implemented regulations that mandate reduced capacity at indoor spaces and masking.

Still, across the region, people are fatigued with restrictions while policymakers worry that new measures could hamper an economic comeback. There’s hope that, due to its rapid infection rate, Omicron cases will peak over the next few weeks, allowing countries to return to their recovery.

Restrictions or not, Omicron will likely be disruptive. As in the United States, a new wave can affect businesses or organizations that cannot find sufficient labor due to employees quarantining or sick with the disease. This could result in temporary closures of schools, restaurants, transportation services, and government offices.

We’re already seeing in-region examples. In Mexico City, a staffing shortage at the airport caused lines to stretch out to sidewalks and a raft of flight cancellations. Meanwhile, Buenos Aires had over 20 percent of its medical personnel absent in the second week of January due to Covid positivity or exposure.

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