By Fabian Cambero and Reuters TV
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile's health authorities said on Thursday they believed a dip in the record case numbers the Andean nation has seen over the past week represents a "stabilization" of a second COVID-19 wave thanks to strict lockdowns and a rapid vaccination program that has fully innoculated a third of the population.
Health minister Enrique Paris told reporters he hoped the 9,000 record daily cases reached last week represented the peak of the latest outbreak.
"Once we reach that peak, we expect not a reduction but a stabilization and then a return to smaller numbers of positive patients," he said.
Chile has now vaccinated 50% of its 15 million-strong target population with at least one dose of the Pfizer or Sinovac-developed drugs, and given 32.7% two doses, Paris said.
He said stricter lockdowns now covering more than 80% of the country, coupled with public awareness campaigns, should allow Chile to hold elections on May 15 to pick constituents to draft a new constitution as well as local government officials. The election was postponed from April.
Chile's experience of the pandemic is being watched anxiously by many beyond its borders to see how much its vaccination campaign - one of the world's fastest and most extensive to date - will mitigate successive waves of the virus.
On Friday, it will become one of the first countries in the world to release "real world" data showing how effective the vaccines have been in reducing contagion, serious illness and death.
Health experts remain divided on whether the lockdowns and vaccines will be enough to curb the second wave imminently or whether fresh strains of the virus, limited vaccine efficiency and citizen defiance of sanitary measures will continue to drive the numbers higher.
Paula Daza, the country's top public health official, said the vaccines were already reducing contagion rates and hospital admissions of older groups who were innoculated first.
"People under 50 represent 65% of confirmed (COVID-19) cases and 41% of those being hospitalized," she said.
Claudia Reyes, a 38-year-old ICU nurse at Santiago's Workers' Hospital, said they had seen an "exponential" increase in cases of largely younger patients.
She said fatigue or indifference to the lockdowns was evident among the general population, despite daily broadcasts about the severity of the second wave.
"There are so many people on the streets, on public transport," she said. "It feels like last year the population was better contained but this time, regardless of the COVID situation, that there are fewer or no hospital beds left, people's awareness is not in keeping with the reality."
(Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Alistair Bell)