Brazil reels as Omicron spreads, weighing on hospitals and economy

President Jair Bolsonaro has been widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic, mobilizing against lockdowns, refusing to wear a mask in public and choosing not to get vaccinated.

Epidemiologists hope that a successful vaccination campaign, which saw 67% of the population fully inoculated, will reduce the impact of the current wave of infections.

But as demand for health services increases, hospitals are also being hit by staff shortages, with doctors and nurses self-isolating after testing positive.

“If you don’t know a friend who has the virus right now, that means you don’t have any friends,” said César Eduardo Fernandes, head of the Brazilian Medical Association (AMB).

“The situation is worrying and it is possible that some services will collapse,” he said, adding that staff absences from hospitals had tripled in four weeks since the Omicron wave hit.

The variant also slams the wider economy. Brazil’s National Restaurant Association said 85% of its members suffered from staff absences, with around 20% of the total workforce absent.

Airlines Azul SA and Latam Airlines Group have been forced to cancel flights due to staff shortages, leading to long queues at some airports.

In an attempt to mitigate the impact, the Health Ministry this week reduced the quarantine period for asymptomatic COVID-19 patients to seven days from 10.

Several states have canceled Carnival celebrations, hoping to slow the spread. Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have both banned the famous street parties, although for now both cities are still planning a samba parade.

Scientists fear the scale of the outbreak will only become clear in the coming weeks.

Some Department of Health databases have been offline since an apparent ransomware attack on Dec. 10 severely hampered the government’s ability to collect data from state health authorities. Testing remains well below South American peers.

“We are completely without reliable data,” said Alexandre Naime Barbosa, head of epidemiology at Sao Paulo State University.

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