The Chilean government has vaccinated more of its population than any other country in the Americas, exceeding even the vaccination rate of the United States. It has already vaccinated approximately 35 percent of its population. Only four other nations have vaccinated a larger percentage of its population: Bhutan, the United Arab Emirates, Seychelles and Israel. (Related: "Breakthrough" coronavirus cases still being reported, some even dying despite being fully vaccinated.)
But the country's mass inoculation campaign has not saved it from a recent surge in coronavirus cases, which have doubled in the country and in other neighboring South American nations during the past few weeks. The country's intensive care units are running at 95 percent occupancy.
"Nowhere are infections as worrisome as in South America, where cases are mounting in nearly every country," said Dr. Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
Public health experts in Chile have argued that the rise in coronavirus cases does not mean the mass vaccination campaign is not working.
Miguel O'Ryan, a professor of medicine at the University of Chile and a member of the science ministry's vaccine advisory committee, said the country did not expect the inoculations to make a big impact on infections until mid-2021. "What we are seeing now is simply – and tragically – what happened in all of the northern hemisphere, with a few exceptions, as autumn started [six months ago]."
"The government was over-optimistic in believing that its successful vaccination program would avoid a new wave of infections," argued Eduardo Engel, an economist working for the Chilean government.
Engel explained that in early February the government gave its people the false impression that one dose of the coronavirus vaccine was all people needed. "That led to people getting too relaxed, while the government was not very strict at implementing restrictions."
PAHO Assistant Director Jarbas Barbosa believes the immunization program will only have an effect when between 70 to 80 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.
"We really don't know yet what is the level that will provide … herd immunity," said Barbosa, adding that it is important for Chile to keep lockdown measures in place to prevent further transmission.
Ian Sample and Oliver Holmes, journalists writing for The Guardian, have even argued that, with transmission rates in the country at such a high level, "a far greater proportion of the population will need to be vaccinated to get on top of the pandemic."
Other experts have argued that the rise in cases is because Chileans have been given a "false sense of security," which led to the early rolling back of lockdown restrictions and social distancing rules.
This is what Ximena Aguilera, an epidemiologist serving in the advisory committee of the Chilean health ministry, has argued. According to her, a lot of the new cases came about when many Chileans began moving around the country for the summer holidays in March.
Aguilera has also blamed the less strict adherence to social distancing regulations that came about due to the supposed success of the vaccination program as well as "lockdown fatigue."
"Vaccines are just one part of our COVID response," argued Etienne. "And we must continue to rely on public health measures to keep our populations and our countries safe."
Aguilera, Engel and many other experts have also pinned the blame on the proliferation of more infectious COVID-19 variants, particularly the P1 strain from Brazil.
"The government did little to stop new variants entering the country, even though it knew since December that it was a major risk factor," said Engel.
Learn more about the ineffective mass vaccination campaigns in countries like Chile by reading the latest articles at Vaccines.news.