SANTIAGO, Chile— Carola, a 31-year-old publicist who prefers to remain anonymous, caught COVID-19 after having lunch with a friend in Santiago, Chile. “There were definitely ways I could have prevented myself from catching it,” she confided to VICE WORLD NEWS over the phone, quarantined from her room, in isolation from her two flatmates.
She’s just one of the thousands in Chile that caught the virus early March during an unprecedented peak which has seen daily cases surge past 7000—the worst numbers in the country since the pandemic hit.
The peak has come despite Chile being one of the world’s most vaccinated countries per capita, fourth behind the United Arab Emirates, Seychelles, and Israel, managing to vaccinate over a third of its 18-million population with their first dose. Chile’s health ministry credits the programme’s success with diversifying sources, closing deals with Pfizer-BioNTech, Sinovac, AstraZeneca-Oxford, and Johnson & Johnson to secure enough doses to vaccinate its population nearly twice over.
Epidemiologist Maria Paz Bertoglia, a public health professor at the University of Chile, believes that communication around Chile’s vaccination success has led to many disregarding public health measures. “We need the public, as well as the authorities, to not get ahead of themselves. It’s going to take time for the vaccination to have a real effect,” she said.
Chile’s government has proudly touted their vaccination accomplishments since the drive began last December, while scenes of the jabs have been broadcast on television every day for months.
Bertoglia believes the focus on the vaccinations resulted in an absence of information about the “new highly infectious strains entering the country over the (Chilean) summer months.”
“We need communication to be much more transparent, direct, and honest.”
She adds that permitting holiday travel during the summer was an erroneous move, and believes lockdown measures were prematurely lifted. For months, parts of the country enjoyed access to gyms, with restaurants, bars and cinemas open to the public, despite cases increasing.
“This peak was avoidable,” Bertoglia said.
Israel is currently the world’s most vaccinated country, with 85% of its population jabbed. Recent reports confirm the vaccination has succeeded in slashing symptomatic COVID cases by up to 94%.
But epidemiologist Michael Edelstein, an associate professor at the Bar Ilan University and public health doctor, says that Israel had experienced a troubling surge in cases in late January, when Israel had vaccinated a third of its population, and ”Chile is currently where Israel was around seven weeks ago.”
He attributes Israel’s January peak to several factors, including fatigue over distancing measures, combined with the confusion caused by the vaccine communications — similar to what is currently happening in Chile. “The messaging shifted towards vaccination(s) and people became complacent to some extent.”
He stresses that during the vaccination process, all countries must consider an interim period where getting vaccinated is just as important as following social distancing measures.
“This is the hard message: It takes time to get to a point where the immunity from the vaccine is strong enough to reduce the other measures.”
Although Israel now has vaccinated most of its population, distancing measures are still in place, and face masks are still obligatory. Meanwhile, Chilean health authorities have strengthened lockdown measures in most of the country, under which citizens are only allowed out to supermarkets and pharmacies during weekdays and are prohibited to leave their homes during weekends.
Vaccinations in Chile continue to roll out smoothly, and the country is well on track to reach its ambitious goal of vaccinating 80% of its population by June.
Last year, Carola strictly abided by COVID safety measures, but since measures relaxed and the vaccinations began, she gradually stopped applying the distancing measures she’d previously been so vigilant about. “I never went to a clandestine party or anything, but I did have a social life.”
Carola will be in quarantine for one more week, and is recovering well. Acknowledging the grave risks associated with the virus and the harm it can do to others, she says she won’t let her guard down again, “I’ll definitely be more careful in the future.”