U.S. sends nearly 1 million COVID vaccine doses to Caribbean nations

Trinidad Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, left, and U.S. Southern Command Adm. Craig Faller are visiting a 28-bed field hospital donated by the U.S. at the Jean Pierre Complex in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on Aug. 11, 2021.
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The Biden administration Wednesday began shipping more than 830,000 doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to six Caribbean nations as part of its commitment to help the fight against the global pandemic.

The vaccine donations come on the heels of the U.S. Southern Command’s assistance to the Caribbean as part of a COVID response effort that has included desperately needed field hospitals for several Caribbean countries seeing peaks in virus cases, ventilators, personal protection equipment and oxygen generators.

Doral-based Southcom has more than 90 COVID-related projects in the Caribbean region alone, totaling more than $18 million, with more assistance to come, said Southern Command’s commanding officer, Adm. Craig Faller. Faller visited one of two U.S. government-donated COVID-19 field hospitals in Trinidad and Tobago before flying to Barbados as part of a three-day, two-nation Caribbean visit.

”Lives saved and the difference that this hospital has made, it strikes me as not a donation but it’s an investment. It’s an investment in our shared security because health security is national security,” Faller said, standing inside the 28-bed facility in Port of Spain Tuesday alongside Trinidad Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh.

“It’s an investment in this hemisphere and our shared vision for a secured, free and prosperous hemisphere.”

Following a walk-through of the facility, a grateful Deyalsingh made an impassioned plea for Trinidadians to get vaccinated. Despite keeping its borders closed for more than a year, the two-island nation is seeing a daily increase in COVID-19 cases. Overall, the country has reported 40,584 infections and 1,144 coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began.

“This gift came at a critical time in our nation’s battle against COVID-19, where we were experiencing a consistent upward trend in infections and hospitalizations,” Deyalsingh said about the field hospitals, which saw over 74% occupancy levels between May 18 and Aug. 3. “If more and more people become vaccinated, you will not have the need for more and more physical capacity, and that is what every country in the world is battling with now.”

In announcing the vaccine shipments Wednesday, the Biden administration said Trinidad will receive 305,370 doses while Barbados will receive 70,200 doses. Donations will also go to the Bahamas, Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Delta variant a threat in the Caribbean, too

After keeping the virus at bay last year, Caribbean nations have been struggling to control the spread. They have faced a shortage of vaccines, and now the delta variant in Barbados and elsewhere in the region poses a new threat.

In some countries, governments have turned to India and China for vaccine allocations, leading some to see vaccine diplomacy as an emerging problem in the region. The Biden administration has said that its donations have nothing to do with competition but ”to save lives and to lead the world in bringing an end to the pandemic.”

“We are sharing these doses not to secure favors or extract concessions,” a senior administration official said. “Our vaccines do not come with strings attached. We are doing this with the singular objective of saving lives.”

In June, the Biden administration announced that it would send millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Latin America and the Caribbean, where increased movement between countries and relaxed public health measures have caused the coronavirus and its variants to spread.

The bulk of the 25 million U.S. doses will be given through the U.N.-backed vaccine global access platform known as COVAX, which is helping to get vaccines to people in poor and middle-income countries. Of the 19 million doses that the administration said it would donate via COVAX, six million are directed at South and Central American nations as well as the Caribbean.

In the case of the Pfizer vaccine, the U.S. has also arranged for an initial start-up donation of ancillary kits that includes the specialized syringes.

In addition to the vaccines, which will arrive between now and the weekend in some countries — Tropical Storm Fred permitting — Southcom and the U.S. Agency for International Development are providing more than $28 million to help 14 Caribbean countries fight COVID-19 and address its impact, including $1.5 million to support vaccine distribution. Additional funding, including for vaccine distribution, is expected to be announced soon.

Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, the U.S. last month sent 500,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine to Haiti, the last country in the region to launch a vaccination campaign.

WHO tries to address vaccine inequality

On Wednesday, the head of the World Health Organization’s Americas office, Carissa Etienne, said over the past week more than 1.3 million COVID-19 cases and more than 19,000 COVID-related deaths were reported in the Americas region, which includes Canada, Mexico and the United States.

In the Caribbean, where just 18% of the population was vaccinated as of last week, deaths are rising in the more populous islands.

“Cases are rising in Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, as well as in Martinique and the Bahamas. Over the past month, infections increased 30-fold in Martinique, and there has been a significant spike in hospitalizations,” Etienne told regional journalists during the Pan American Health Organization’s weekly update.

Although cases are surging in some areas, she noted that there is clear evidence that wherever vaccines are available, they limit severe illness and save lives.

“That is why increasing access to vaccines remains our top priority — not for some countries, but for all countries,” she said. “More than six months after the first doses arrived in our region, the disparity in who can access vaccines and who cannot is unacceptable. Fewer than 20% of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully immunized, and in some countries that number is less than 5%.”

PAHO, Etienne announced, is offering member countries a new opportunity to access COVID-19 vaccines through Its Revolving Fund, which is now taking requests for COVID-19 vaccines for the last three months of 2021 and for calendar year 2022. So far, more than 20 countries have formally expressed interest.

The Revolving Fund allows countries to get access to high-quality vaccines at competitive prices countries can afford. It also provides support with planning, cold chain development, syringes and other supplies. Countries have also been accessing vaccines through the U.N.-backed vaccine sharing platform known as COVAX, which the Biden administration is also using to get millions of doses of vaccines around the globe.

“This new initiative will make available tens of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses beyond the 20% COVAX offers, and it will complement bilateral deals and other existing avenues for countries to access vaccines,” Etienne said.

Etienne said the region needs to pursue all possible avenues to expedite access and ensure countries reach their vaccination goals.

“We must banish the idea that vaccine inequity is the problem of some countries and not others, and instead work together to find solutions for all countries.”