Over Half of Europe Could Be Infected With Coronavirus Soon, W.H.O. Says

LONDON – More than half of people in Europe could be infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus over the next six to eight weeks, the World Health Organization warned on Tuesday, amid “another tidal wave of west by east sweeping the region. . “

“The region saw more than seven million cases of Covid-19 in the first week of 2022, which more than doubled over a two-week period,” said Hans Kluge, the agency’s regional director for Europe, at a press conference.

While coronavirus vaccines remain remarkably effective in preventing serious illness and death, the agency cautioned against treating the virus like seasonal flu, as much remains unknown – especially regarding the severity of disease in areas with low vaccination rates, such as Eastern Europe.

The WHO has warned for months that the booster injections could worsen immunization inequalities around the world, but Dr Kluge said on Tuesday they would play a critical role in protecting the most vulnerable people from serious disease and should also be used to protect health workers and other essential workers, including teachers.

Since Omicron was first detected in late November, it has torn the planet apart at an unprecedented rate during the two-year pandemic. While friends, colleagues and family members test positive, the reality that the virus is moving quickly and widely has been a defining feature of this wave of infection.

But the sharp increase cited by Kluge, based on forecasts from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, is a radical paradigm shift. Although the institute’s models have been frequently criticized by experts, it is clear that the virus is spreading rapidly. Even though many people avoid serious illness, the virus promises to cause societal disruption across the continent.

While much of the public debate has revolved around whether this is the time when governments should change policies and restrictions to treat the coronavirus as an endemic disease – removing most restrictions and allowing people to manage risk in a similar way to how they do with the flu – the WHO has said it is too early to call the virus endemic.

Catherine Smallwood, WHO’s senior emergency officer, said one of the key factors in declaring the virus endemic was a certain sense of predictability.

“We are still a long way off,” she said. “We still have a tremendous amount of uncertainty.”

Dr Kluge added that there were simply too many unknown factors, including the exact severity of Omicron for unvaccinated people and the risk of infection resulting in symptoms of ‘long Covid’.

“I am also deeply concerned that the variant is moving east, we have yet to see its full impact in countries where vaccination levels are lower and where we will see more severe disease in unvaccinated, ”he said.

The countries of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, where Omicron is just starting to spread widely, have much lower vaccination rates than Western Europe.

Despite the widespread level of infection, Dr Kluge cited data from Denmark suggesting how effective vaccines remain. The hospitalization rate for those unvaccinated in the last wave was “six times higher than for those who were fully vaccinated during Christmas week,” he said.

“Let me reiterate that the currently approved vaccines continue to provide good protection against serious illness and death, including for Omicron,” he said. “But due to the unprecedented scale of transmission, we are now seeing an increase in hospitalizations for Covid-19. This is a challenge for healthcare systems and service delivery in many countries where Omicron has spread at high speed and threatens to overwhelm many others. “

He added: “For countries that have not yet been affected by the Omicron push, there is a closing window to act now and plan for contingencies.”

One of the central struggles of governments across Europe has been to try to keep schools open, and Dr Kluge described these efforts as essential.

“Schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen,” he said, although he added that “the number of people infected is going to be so high in many places that schools in many countries will not be able to keep all classes open ”due to illness and understaffing.

An example of that pressure was apparent this week in France, where 10,452 classes were canceled on Monday, according to the government. Prime Minister Jean Castex said that in the future, schoolchildren across the country would be allowed to perform self-tests instead of PCR tests if any of their classmates tested positive, with the aim of keeping the system functioning. educative.

“If we were to close classes as soon as there is a first case, given the Omicron explosion, all French schools would be closed within days,” Castex told France 2 television.

But as countries consider shortening periods of isolation for people who test positive to limit the effect on essential services, Dr Kluge said that “any decision to shorten periods of quarantine or isolation recommended should be taken in combination with negative Covid-19 tests and only when considered essential to preserve the continuity of critical services.

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