As health officials grapple with the Omicron response, some caution against ‘extreme’ measures

Dec 20, 2021

As health officials confirmed a third case of the Covid-19 Omicron variant in Ecuador and tested for several more on Sunday, they admit they are unsure of the impact the new strain will have on the country. “We are like everyone else in the world,” says Francisco Pérez, Health Ministry Undersecretary. “We see the cases spreading and believe we will soon have community transmission if we don’t already, but we don’t yet know how severe an outbreak will be.”

Health workers in Guayaquil prepare Covid-19 tests on Saturday.

Although the National Emergency Operations Committee (COE) imposed new restrictions on public gatherings last week, the Ministry of Health says more extreme restrictions depend not only the spread of Omicron but the severity of cases.

“So far, what we are seeing in the country and the rest of the world is that cases are mild and most are asymptomatic,” Pérez says. “Do we lock down the country based simply on a high number of infections if the cases are less serious? I don’t think so. We will need to balance the equation.”

The health ministry announced Saturday that it will continue to maintain an “epidemiological fence” around those who have been in close contact with Omicron patients. Under the plan, code named “Fénix”, almost 200 people are currently in quarantine, being tested on a daily basis.

“We will maintain the precaution of Fénix as long as we feel it necessary,” a spokeswoman for the Ministry said. “We will try to keep cases isolated to slow the spread but we depend on the public to its part in maintaining preventive measures.”

So far, according to the Ministry, none of those being monitored have tested positive for either Omicron or other strains of Covid-19.

Some of the uncertainty about what the government should do next, says Pérez, is based on Ecuador’s history with the pandemic. “In the case of Delta, we did not experience the same level of infections and hospitalizations as other countries which shows that the variants have different effects in different countries and regions.”

Quito infectious disease specialist and former Health Ministry researcher Jose Ruiz agrees that it is too early to know all the dangers posed by Omicron but he says we know most of them. “I understand the rules enacted last week were necessary as a precaution but I think we should move very slowly to add more. Previous lockdowns have caused a great deal of damage socially and economically. Everything I read is that the variant causes mild cases, more like a cold or flu. “Yes, we must study the data, but at this stage I do not see the need for another lockdown,” he says.

Ruiz adds: “The president of the South African medical association who first reported Omicron, just repeated her observation that the variant is very mild. She admits it is highly transmissible but says health experts are ignoring the mildness of cases, preferring to say they don’t yet have enough information. Well, according to the doctor who has treated hundreds of patients, there is more than enough data to confirm the low level of risk. I think we should listen to her.”

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