Brazil Faces Virus Onslaught as Influenza Spreads With Omicron
(Bloomberg) -- Brazil’s hospital system may be at risk as a surge of influenza courses through the country just as the omicron strain takes hold.
Some people have been hit by back-to-back infections -- or even come down with both at the same time, what’s been dubbed “flurona.” It’s happened in at least three states so far, and experts say that number is likely to grow as omicron, a more contagious variant of coronavirus, becomes more prevalent.
“It’s not a surprise considering there are two highly infectious viruses circulating in Brazil at a time when people are being less careful with the use of masks and social distancing,” said Jean Gorinchteyn, the health secretary for the state of Sao Paulo, one of the three that has reported cases of simultaneous infections.
Around 60% of Covid cases tested in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state, stem from omicron, he said, adding that the strain will likely become dominant in two weeks.
Brazil has seen a relative lull in Covid numbers, though data has been plagued by a persistent outage of the Health Ministry’s systems after being hit by hackers last month. Confirmed cases have rarely surpassed 10,000 daily, a fraction of the more than 100,000 reported at the height of the pandemic, while deaths have mostly stayed below 150 a day. The figures are expected to grow as omicron spreads and following two weeks of year-end celebrations that saw family gatherings and packed tourist destinations.
There’s plenty of evidence influenza is on the rise. Sao Paulo, one of Latin America’s largest cities, saw cases of respiratory disease surge past 238,000 in December, more than double the previous month. Less than half of those were suspected to be Covid infections. At Diagnosticos da America SA, one of the country’s largest diagnostics providers, the demand for influenza tests surged in December, with more than 22% of them coming back positive, from 9% the previous month.
A national monitoring system sees influenza cases likely rising in 12 of Brazil’s 27 states, including Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, three of the country’s most populous.
The health impact of back-to-back or simultaneous infections is still largely unknown. Public health physician Claudio Maierovitch, a former director of the national health agency, says the different viruses multiply independently, and being hit with two different strains of Covid at once is probably a more worrisome scenario. Still, Estevao Urbano, director of Brazil’s Infectious Disease Society, sees the potential risk of someone who has influenza and Covid requiring more care.
“For the hospital system, just the fact of having an increase in influenza and coronavirus is already a risk,” Urbano said. “Most cases will not require hospitalization, but if the volume of infections is very high, a small percentage is already enough to overload hospitals.”
High levels of vaccination in Brazil, however, are likely to reduce the need for the kind of long-term hospitalization that overwhelmed the health system in the first waves of the virus, said Gorinchteyn. About 74% of the population has already received two doses of Covid-19 vaccines, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, and almost 13% have received a booster.
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States are also trying to speed up influenza vaccinations. Last month, Rio de Janeiro started opening health outposts specifically geared to people with flu symptoms after declaring influenza had reached epidemic levels in the city. Sao Paulo broadened the scope of its flu vaccination campaign in late December, making shots that were reserved only for the elderly and some other priority groups available to everyone.
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