Why are Covid-19 cases increasing in Chile?

A health worker prepares a dose of the Chinese CoronaVac vaccine at a vaccination center in Santiago.

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Chile, a country of 19 million people on the Pacific coast of South America, had gotten a head start on vaccines by making deals with pharmaceutical companies just months after the start of the pandemic. At the start of this year, Chile had achieved one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, while other countries in the region had yet to receive vaccines.

Chile had a vaccination rate of 38.94 per 100 people on Wednesday, only behind Israel (61.58) and the United Kingdom (47.51). In terms of vaccination, it is ahead of the United States (36.13), according to data published by the “Our World in Data” database at the University of Oxford.

Yet the pandemic has hardly abated. Last week, Chile broke records for the number of daily cases since the start of the pandemic on two consecutive days: 8,195 new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday and 9,171 on Friday. And even though the number of new cases diagnosed per day fell this week, the reality is that a peak that started in December has continued steadily in Chile.

Chile approached 1.1 million cases of Covid-19 in total on Wednesday. Nearly 25,000 people have died from the disease, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. What didn’t go well?

Health officials, experts and journalists consulted by CNN say the world can learn a lot from a multifactorial “perfect storm” that has hit Chile starting with Christmas gatherings and New Year’s celebrations, with sustained pressure to reopening all schools and shopping malls, an anticipated sense of security given the rapid pace of vaccinations and the below-expected efficacy levels of the Sinovac vaccine, which has been widely used in the country.
Francisco Álvarez, a public health expert and, until recently, director of the health department of the province of Valparaíso, the second most populous in Chile, says the easing of restrictions on Covid-19 around the end of summer holidays he year has started all.

“Right before Christmas we would see whole families shopping for gifts and there were crowds in the malls. From January, people were allowed to travel between provinces to go on vacation and the virus was traveling with them, ”Álvarez said. January is summer in the southern hemisphere, and in Chile it is generally the high season for domestic and international travel.

Álvarez, who had his own fight with Covid-19 last summer and spent weeks in hospital, also said there would be crowds on the beaches in the province of Valparaíso, a premier tourist destination plan and even if his office organized mobile test sites, people would refuse to do so. get tested because “they didn’t want to be disturbed while on vacation”.

“People have received two misleading messages: you can go on vacation anywhere in the country or abroad and we are one of the best countries in Latin America in terms of vaccination. People realized that the risk of contracting the virus was probably over and the measures were relaxed. . It created the perfect storm, ”Álvarez said. He added that many Chileans have also traveled to Europe and other countries with a high incidence of cases, which contributed to the spike.

While at his old post in the health department of Valparaíso, Álvarez’s office documented 60 infections, mostly from young people who had attended the same underground New Year’s party, while such gatherings were still prohibited.

The establishment where the party was held was fined approximately $ 71,000. A young man who failed to self-quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19 has been fined the equivalent of around $ 35,000.

There were at least six underground parties attended mainly by young people from Santiago, the capital. This produced peaks of Covid-19 in an area that had so far had a relatively low number of cases. Infections among the local population have also started to increase.

A health worker prepares a dose of the Chinese CoronaVac vaccine at a vaccination center in Santiago.

Authorities were once again forced to take drastic measures to combat the pandemic. Schools that had been reopened for in-person lessons were once again closed. Only essential businesses like supermarkets were allowed to stay open. Thirteen million Chileans across the country were locked out again at the end of March, despite the enforcement being lax, and CNN could still see plenty of people on the streets of the capital.

Health Minister Enrique Paris said on Tuesday that while it is true that some measures were relaxed in December, he never told people to stop following preventive measures. “We have been in quarantine in the metropolitan area for 14 days and we are seeing good results with our vaccination efforts. “

“We never said vaccination was going to be the only answer. We need to vaccinate, but we also need to stay alert to other things like reduced mobility, wearing masks, hand washing, and social distancing so the virus doesn’t spread. “Said Paris.

And then there is the issue of the vaccine itself. Chile has been successful with widespread immunizations in part because its government has tackled any vaccine it could get. But the widely used CoronaVac vaccine developed by Sinovac, a private company, was found to have an efficacy rate of only 50.4% in clinical trials in Brazil. Another trial in Turkey showed it to be 83.5% effective. State-owned Sinopharm said its two vaccines had efficacy rates of 79.4% and 72.5%.

Although it is too early to say whether this has contributed significantly to the increase in the number of cases, high-profile cases in Chile of people who have been vaccinated and ended up in hospital with the disease have sparked the anxiety in the country.

Celestino Aos, Archbishop of Santiago, was hospitalized on Saturday after testing positive for Covid-19, according to Fr Andrés Moro, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Santiago. Aos was released from the hospital on Tuesday. Monsignor Alberto Lorenzelli, auxiliary bishop of Santiago who lives with the archbishop, also contracted the virus, Moro said. Both received the Coronavac vaccine.
The Chilean government has distributed faulty contraceptive pills.  Today, more than 150 people are pregnant.The Chilean government has distributed faulty contraceptive pills.  Today, more than 150 people are pregnant.

Gao Fu, director of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledged the less than ideal efficacy rate of Chinese Covid-19 vaccines, telling a conference in Chengdu on Saturday that “the rates of protection of existing vaccines are not high ”.

Nevertheless, the Coronavac vaccine is believed to be more effective in severe cases. Researchers from the Brazilian Instituto Butantan earlier this year confirmed the low overall efficacy of Coronavac, but found the vaccine to be 78% effective in fighting mild cases and 100% effective in moderate and severe cases.

Izkia Siches, who heads ‘Colegio Médico’, Chile’s largest medical association, criticized the government’s response to the pandemic, saying that allowing people to travel during the holidays shared messages from the top and the lack of resources at local clinics compounded the problem.

After a glowing assessment by Minister Paris during an appearance in Chilean Congress regarding Chile’s vaccination campaign, Siches hit back, saying, “We shouldn’t be lenient. Our country is going through a fragile time right now, ”CNN affiliate CNN Chile reported.

Paris, who has been in office since June, later admitted that Chile “made mistakes that have probably hurt many families. I beg your pardon. We have done everything we can to make it the best possible way ”.

Christopher Ulloa in Santiago contributed to this report.

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