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Brazil falters as COVID-19 cases rise; hospitals, economy under pressure

Brazil falters as COVID-19 cases rise;  hospitals, economy under pressure

RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO, Jan. 14 (Reuters) – Brazil is experiencing a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases as the Omicron strain spreads across the country, puts pressure on health services and an already sputtering economy is pressing.

Insufficient testing and a data blackout Hacked attacks have made it harder for experts to track the spread of the highly contagious strain in Brazil, but there are growing signs that it’s hitting Latin America’s largest nation hard.

The number of confirmed cases has nearly doubled since last week, with the seven-day moving average rising to 52,500 from 27,267 last Wednesday.

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Experts believe the true number is much higher, due to a lack of testing and patchy data reporting and disclosure systems.

So far, deaths – around 120 a day – remain much lower than last year, when Brazil was briefly the global epicenter of the pandemic with more than 3,000 deaths a day.

With more than 620,000 deaths, Brazil has the third-highest death toll from COVID-19, behind the United States and Russia, according to Reuters calculations.

President Jair Bolsonaro has been widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic, his crackdown on lockdowns, refusing to wear a mask in public and choosing not to get vaccinated.

Epidemiologists hope that a vigorous vaccination campaign, with 67% of the population fully vaccinated, will lessen the impact of the current wave of infections.

But as demand for health services rises, hospitals are also facing staff shortages as doctors and nurses self-isolate after testing positive for the virus.

“If you don’t know a friend who has the virus right now, it means you don’t have any friends,” said César Eduardo Fernandes, head of the Brazilian Medical Association (AMB).

“The situation is worrying and it is possible that some services will collapse,” he said, adding that hospital staff absences had tripled in four weeks since the Omicron wave hit.

A union of doctors in São Paulo on Friday threatened a strike next Wednesday by doctors staffing public clinics in the country’s largest city to demand reinforcements. The union said doctors on the front lines were suffering from exhaustion and understaffing as infected colleagues have to isolate themselves.

‘WITHOUT RELIABLE DATA’

The variant also applies to the broader economy. The Brazilian National Association of Restaurants said that 85% of its members face staff absences, with about 20% of staff.

Airlines Azul SA (AZUL.N) and Latam Airlines Group (LTM.SN) flights had to be canceled due to staff shortages, resulting in long queues at some airports.

To mitigate the impact, the Ministry of Health this week reduced the quarantine period for asymptomatic COVID-19 patients from 10 to seven days.

Several states have canceled carnival celebrations in hopes of slowing the spread. Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have both banned the famous street parties, though both cities are still planning a samba parade for now.

Scientists fear that the full extent of the outbreak may not become clear until the coming weeks.

Some Department of Health databases have been offline since an apparent ransomware attack on December 10 severely hampered the government’s ability to collect data from health authorities. Tests remain well below those of South American colleagues.

“We don’t have reliable data,” said Alexandre Naime Barbosa, head of epidemiology at Sao Paulo State University.

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Reporting by Pedro Fonseca and Eduardo Simoes Writing by Stephen Eisenhammer Editing by David Gregorio and Paul Simao

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