Latin American nations ease restrictions as COVID cases drop

Bogotá, April 28 (BUS): Colombians will soon go to the cinemas without having to wear face masks. Chile will open its borders next week for the first time in two years. The President of Mexico declared the end of the epidemic.

In Rio de Janeiro, tens of thousands attended carnival parades just two months after the world-famous parade was postponed to prevent infection with the COVID-19 virus, the AP reports.

Even as coronavirus cases soar in the faraway half of the world in China and authorities there impose new lockdowns, falling infection rates in Latin America have led countries to scrap restrictions on mass gatherings, lift some travel requirements and scrap mandates for masks that were in place two years ago.

The region has been hit hard by the pandemic, with countries such as Brazil and Peru reporting some of the highest death tolls in the world. But this month, cases and deaths have fallen in most places to low levels similar to levels last seen in the first two months of the pandemic.

Some epidemiologists believe that vaccination campaigns and months of exposure to different strains of the virus have helped the region’s population resist new waves of infection.

“What we seem to see is that while the virus is still spreading, not many people are getting sick or showing symptoms,” said Fernando de la Hoz, professor of epidemiology at the National University of Bogota, the capital of Colombia.

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Latin American countries were hit last year by the coronavirus, with the delta and gamma variants – the latter of which appeared in Brazil – infecting millions and killing hundreds of thousands.

In June, Brazil had 500,000 deaths, and seven South American countries were among the ten countries in the world with the highest per capita death rates.

Peru is now the only Latin American country that still has this dubious distinction, according to data compiled by Statista, a market research platform. But even in Peru, COVID-19 deaths have fallen dramatically, from more than 200 a day in February to about 20 by the end of April. Intensive care units for the Corona virus, which were mobilized a year ago, were only 11% of their capacity at the beginning of this month, according to the Ministry of Health.

The virus variant BA.2, which spread rapidly through China, the United States and some European countries in March, has not had a significant impact in most of the region so far.

In Colombia, cases are down from 35,000 per day in mid-January, when the omicron variant peaked, to about 250 per day. The daily death toll is in the single digits, and as of the first week of April, only 177 coronavirus patients were occupied out of 10,700 intensive care unit beds, according to the American Health Organization.

“We don’t expect that wave from China to come here because our strategy was different from theirs,” Martha Lucia Ospina, director of Colombia’s National Institute of Health, told La FM radio this month.

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“They cut off contact with the outside world because they were targeting the zero Covid strategy … while we gradually opened up and applied different types of vaccines that generated an interesting mix of immunity,” Ospina said.

Most countries in the region have achieved the WHO target of vaccinating 70% of their population with at least two doses.

As the numbers of cases and hospitalizations dwindle, so do the many restrictions on social life.

The Brazilian federal government has rescinded a 2020 measure declaring the pandemic a health emergency, and many states have eased mask mandates and other restrictions.

Masks were not required last weekend at the crowded Sambadrome, the grounds for Rio’s carnival parade, which can seat more than 60,000 spectators. Vaccination cards were supposed to be a requirement of entry, but people had no trouble getting in without them. After being suspended in February, the festivities were moved to the April holiday.

The Colombian government has announced that from May 1, masks will no longer be needed in malls, cinemas and other large indoor spaces in cities with vaccination rates of at least 70%.

Argentina lifted all travel restrictions in March, including those on unvaccinated people, and the capital, Buenos Aires, no longer needs masks anywhere.

In Central America, El Salvador has stopped requiring them in public as of April 21.

Masks are also no longer mandatory in most places in Mexico, which has seen daily cases drop from 40,000 in late January to 1,000 in mid-April. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said this week that the country had entered a “new phase” in which the virus will have seasonal variables.

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There is at least one place where infections are increasing: In Puerto Rico, cases rebounded after requirements for masks and hats for attendance in public spaces were raised on March 10, prompting the island’s government this month to impose masks again at large events.

The island exceeded 3,000 cases per day this week, according to Johns Hopkins University, up from about 200 cases per day during the first week of March.

New surges and outbreaks could occur in the coming months, and governments in the region may have to implement new rounds of vaccines or take other steps, said Evan Dario Velez, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Antioquia in Colombia.

“This virus is absolutely unpredictable,” he added. “Governments will have to closely monitor their behavior and take appropriate measures.”

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