SANTIAGO, Chile — Having negotiated early access to tens of millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines, Chile has been inoculating its residents faster than any other country in the Americas and appears poised to be among the first in the world to reach herd immunity.
But experts say the country’s speedy and efficient vaccination drive — only Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Seychelles have vaccinated a larger share of their populations — gave Chileans a false sense of security and contributed to a sharp spike in new infections and deaths that is overloading the health care system.
The surge in cases, even as more than one third of Chile’s population has received at least the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, serves as a cautionary tale for other nations looking to vaccination drives to quickly put an end to the era of beleaguered economies, closed borders, and social distancing. The rise in cases triggered a new set of strict lockdown measures that have restricted mobility for much of the country, affecting nearly 14 million people.
“When transmission rates are high, the vaccine does not rein in new infections right away,” said Dr. Denise Garrett, an epidemiologist at the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington D.C. “And with the new variants, which are more contagious, we’re not likely to see a big impact until the vast majority of the population is vaccinated.”
The severity of the crisis in Chile became clear Sunday, as President Sebastián Piñera asked Congress to delay by six weeks a vote scheduled for early April to elect the representatives who will draft a new Constitution and other officials.
“Protecting the health of our compatriots has always been our first priority,” Mr. Piñera said in a statement Sunday, arguing that the current state of the pandemic was not conducive to holding a vote that was “democratic, inclusive and safe.”
While more than six million of the country’s 18 million people have been vaccinated, a surge in infections has left intensive care units operating with few beds to spare and the system at a breaking point.
Last week Chile recorded 7,626 new Covid-19 cases in a single day, a record, and the pace of new infections has doubled in the past month. The main hospital in the coastal city of Valparaíso had to create an overflow morgue over the weekend. Health officials in Chile have identified cases of new variants that were first identified in the United Kingdom and Brazil.
Dr. Francisca Crispi, a regional president of Chile’s medical association, said that 20 to 30 percent of medical professionals in the country have gone on leave because they are so exhausted. Many are experiencing mental health problems and suicidal ideation, she added.
“No one questions that the vaccination campaign is a success story,” she said. “But it conveyed a false sense of security to people, who felt that since we’re all being vaccinated the pandemic is over.”
The government moved too quickly as it reopened its borders in November and eased restrictions on businesses, said Dr. Crispi. In January, after tightly restricting the flow of people across provincial borders, the country created a permit system for Chileans to go on summer vacation.
“There was no control or traceability of the people who arrived in the country and many people traveled abroad on vacation,” Dr. Crispi said. She called the vacation permits a “seriously misguided measure.”
Soon, Chile also allowed gyms, churches, malls, restaurants and even casinos to reopen. Even as experts urged caution, the government stuck to its plan to reopen schools on March 1.
As people began moving and consuming with greater ease, doctors grew concerned, especially because the government did not have an effective contact tracing system in place.
“The situation we’re in is one we saw coming,” said Dr. Claudia Cortés, an infectious disease specialist who teaches at the University of Chile and has been treating Covid-19 patients at a private clinic in Santiago. “More than four million people traveled around the country. That led the virus, which had been largely contained to some major areas, to spread across the country.”
Health minister Enrique Paris has defended the vacation permits system, but acknowledged that the government should have been more emphatic about conveying that the virus remained a big threat as Chileans became more lackadaisical about mask wearing and gatherings.
“The mistake was perhaps to not have communicated the evident risk so the people who obtained those permits could have had the necessary instructions,” he said in early March.
Several other countries in the region are struggling to rein in contagion. In Brazil, hospitals in several states have waiting lists of gravely ill patients. Doctors in Paraguay say they are facing shortages of basic drugs as the virus spreads briskly.
Chile is better equipped than any of its neighbors to get the virus under control. Rodrigo Yáñez, a senior foreign ministry official who oversaw the vaccine procurement program, said Chile was successful in securing a large quantity of doses soon after manufacturing began by acting decisively and early.
The government has relied mainly on the Chinese-made CoronaVac and on Pfizer’s shot, but it has also placed orders from other suppliers to ramp up the pace.
Mr. Yáñez said the government’s campaign to encourage Chileans to get vaccinated has been effective at reducing the percentage of people who have expressed reservations about the vaccines in public opinion polls.
“We expect that the effect of the vaccines will be felt by mid-April,” he said in an interview.
Pascale Bonnefoy reported from Santiago. Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro.
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