Argentina’s death toll from Covid-19 continues to rise, though infections are slowing slightly. Amid a barrage of criticism from the opposition over the lack of coronavirus vaccines, the government is hoping to accelerate its plan as rapidly as possible, especially with the PASO primaries and crucial midterm elections on the horizon.
Officials say that infections have dropped, but they remain concerned by the high number of patients occupying intensive care beds across the country. Those figures are at record highs.
"The situation is more controlled," said Health Minister Carla Vizzotti on Wednesday.
"Last week showed a decrease due to the [strict] measures that have been taken, but we are still at a very high plateau, and as winter progresses, we are concerned about the situation," she added.
Amid these fears, the government is hoping to boost its vaccination programme as much as possible. Officials are hoping that local production of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, based on an agreement with the Gamaleya Institute, will make a substantial impact.
Private pharmaceutical firm Laboratorios Richmond is starting to manufacture ‘Sputnik VIDA,’ after its first test batch received authorisation from Moscow.
On Tuesday, a plane carrying the shot’s active ingredient touched down in Buenos Aires. Richmond hopes to be producing vaccines at a rate of 500,000 weekly doses soon, expanding to five million jabs per month within the next year.
That’s not the only local production underway. For the last few months, another Argentine laboratory, mAbxience, has been in charge of developing the active ingredient for the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is then bottled and packaged in Mexico. The process has suffered setbacks, however, that has delayed production.
So far, Argentina has applied some 16 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines. Momentum has picked up in recent weeks, especially after the arrival of some three million doses of various shots last week. In total, 18.85 million jabs (Sputnik V, Sinopharm and AstraZeneca) vaccines have been received.
"We have almost 25 percent of the population vaccinated" with a first dose, Vizzotti said this week. "If we vaccinate 40 or 50 percent of the population, we can get to September with some relief," he said.
Despite the minister’s optimism, alarm bells are still ringing.
"The decrease in the balance of new infections is significant but not sufficient," said Buenos Aires City Health Minister Fernán Quirós this week.
Among the concerns is the high occupancy rates of beds in intensive care units. As of Friday night, more than 7,800 patients were being treated in ICUs, with wards reaching 77.8 percent capacity nationwide and 76.2 percent in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area (AMBA).
"We are concerned about the tremendous voracity of the coronavirus in the interior [of the country]," President Alberto Fernández said this week. "The vaccine helps a lot, but it doesn't do everything.”
In Córdoba, for example, a surge in cases forced the provincial government to introduce strict new restrictions, including the closure of schools until June 18. Midweek, bed occupancy in ICUs in the province reached as high as 83 percent.
Federico Charabora, the director of the Hospital Santojanni in Buenos Aires, admitted that " occupancy reaches 90 percent and a little more" in his institution’s emergency ward.
"This second wave has completely changed the picture. We noticed that it affects younger people, 50 years and under. Young people tend to downplay initial symptoms and when they arrive at the hospital they worsen quite quickly and that brings complications," said the doctor.
Charabora also warned that healthcare professionals, at all institutions, not only his own, are extremely fatigued after lengthy fight against the virus.
"It has been a very long pandemic. No-one expected it to last that long, the staff is exhausted. It has been a year and a half that vacations have been restricted, and we do not have rest rotation," he explained.
Worse may still be yet to come.