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Brazil backs away from the virus brink, but remains at risk

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — For most of this month, intensive care units across Brazil were at or near capacity amid a crush of COVID-19 patients, and sedatives needed to intubate patients dwindled. The nation’s biggest cemetery had so many corpses to bury that gravediggers worked hours past sundown.

But Brazil has stepped back from the edge — at least for now — as burial and hospital services no longer face collapse. It has ceased to be the virus’ global epicenter, as its death toll ebbed and was overtaken by India’s surge. Experts warn, however, that the situation remains precarious, and caution is warranted.

The number of states with ICU capacity above 90% has slipped to 10, from 17 a month ago, according to data from the state-run Fiocruz medical research institute. And nighttime burials at Vila Formosa and three other cemeteries in Sao Paulo were suspended Thursday, after two weeks of declining deaths.

That comes as cold comfort in a country where some 2,400 people died every day over the past week, more than triple the number in the U.S. Brazil surpassed the grim milestone of 400,000 confirmed deaths on Thursday — a number considered by experts to be a significant undercount, in part because many cases were overlooked, especially early in the pandemic. The seven-day average has retreated from more than 3,100 deaths in mid-April, but Fiocruz warned in a bulletin Wednesday that it may plateau —and at an even higher level than it did last year.

“Our goal now is to make the numbers keep going down instead of stabilizing. That’s the most crucial thing,” said Pedro Hallal, an epidemiologist and coordinator of Brazil’s largest COVID-19 testing program. “It’s good that they’re going down, but let’s not assume that this will be the last wave. There is hope that it will be the last wave, because of the vaccine, but that needs to be confirmed.”

Given the slow vaccine rollout, there are millions more Brazilians vulnerable to infection, Hallal added, and the threshold scientists believe is needed to stop uncontrolled spread — 70% or higher of the population with immunity through vaccination or past infection — remains distant.

Brazil’s death toll of 401,186 is the world’s second-highest, with the majority recorded in just the last four months as a more contagious variant swept the nation. In the thick of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, crowds gathered and people boarded public transport in droves as mayors and governors relaxed the restrictions on activity that Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro fervently opposes.

Some mayors and governors tightened such measures over the last month, helping to revert the surge of infections, Fiocruz said. However, they have begun reopening again amid the early, encouraging data.

Valter Gomes, a 33-year-old textile worker in central Sao Paulo, has noted more people riding trains and reopening shops.

“Often the pandemic gets worse because a lot of people who have the opportunity to stay home don’t. They go out instead,” he said. “If everyone contributed, I don’t think there would be such a big crisis of having to stop work, having these lockdowns.”

Researchers at Imperial College London this week said Brazil’s transmission rate has reached its lowest rate in months.

But the rate remains high, said Domingos Alves, an epidemiologist tracking COVID-19 data, and he argues it’s too soon to roll back restrictions. Brazil risks repeating the errors of European countries that have seen third surges, because the country’s decline in infections isn’t yet sustained, he said.

“The situation in all Brazilian states requires adoption of more drastic measures to contain the virus,” said Alves, an adjunct professor of social medicine at the University of Sao Paulo. “The number of cases is very high and we aren’t doing anything to contain the virus.”

Brazil’s number of confirmed cases is widely believed to be an undercount, and the virus is also…

Read More: Brazil backs away from the virus brink, but remains at risk

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