People wait for medical attention and to be tested for the coronaviruses COVID 19 at Princess Isabel Palace, where a health unit specialising in COVID 19 and flu symptoms has been set up, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, January 12, 2022. REUTERS Lucas Landau
SAO PAULO, January 14, Reuters - Brazil is suffering from a rise in COVID 19 cases as the Omicron variant spreads through the country, putting pressure on health services and weighing on an already sputtering economy.
There are increasingly clear signs that it's hitting Latin America's largest nation because of insufficient testing and a data blackout caused by hackers, making it harder for experts to track the spread of the highly contagious variant in Brazil.
Since last week, the rolling average for the past seven days has gone to 52,500, from 27,267 last Wednesday.
Experts believe that the actual number is much higher due to a lack of tests and patchy systems for reporting and public disclosure of data.
The deaths - at around 120 a day - remain much lower than last year, when Brazil was briefly the global epicenter of the epidemic, with more than 3,000 deaths per day.
Brazil has the third-highest death toll from COVID 19, behind the United States and Russia, according to a report by Reuters.
President Jair Bolsonaro has been criticized for his handling of the pandemic, rallying against lockdowns, refusing to wear a mask in public and opting not to get vaccine.
Epidemiologists hope a strong vaccine campaign, which has seen 67% of the population fully inoculated, will dent the impact of the current wave of infections.
As demand rises for health services, hospitals are also suffering staff shortages because doctors and nurses are self-isolating after testing positive for the virus.
"If you don't know a friend who has got the virus at the moment, it means that you don't have any friends," said C sar Eduardo Fernandes, head of the Brazilian Medical Association AMB. The situation is worrying and it is possible that staff absences at hospitals have tripled in four weeks since the Omicron wave hit.
A S o Paulo physicians union threatened a strike next Wednesday by doctors staffing public clinics in the country's biggest city to demand reinforcements. The union said front-line doctors are suffering from exhaustion and understaffing, as infected colleagues are forced to isolate.
The variant is also slamming the economy. The National Association of Restaurants said 85% of its members are dealing with staff absences, with some 20% of the workforce out.
The airline Azul SA AZUL.N and Latam Airlines Group LTM.SN were forced to cancel flights due to a shortage of staff, which resulted in long lines at some airports.
To try and alleviate the impact, the Health Ministry reduced the quarantine period for asymptomatic COVID 19 patients to seven days from 10 this week.
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 for now both cities plan a samba parade.
Scientists worry that the full scale of the outbreak will only become clear in the coming weeks.
Some Health Ministry databases have been offline since a ransomware attack on December 10 severely hampered the ability of the government to gather data from state health authorities. The data isn't reliable, said Alexandre Naime Barbosa, head of epidemiology at Sao Paulo's State University.