Currently, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 represents a “new west-to-east tidal wave sweeping the region,” said WHO’s regional director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge.
In the first week of January, Europe has seen more than seven million new cases reported, more than double in two weeks.
“The way in which each country reacts now must be informed by its epidemiological situation, the available resources, the status of immunization and the socio-economic context,” said WHO.
Highly transmissible omicron
As of January 10, 26 countries reported that more than one percent of their populations were infected each week. According to the WHO, Omicron is becoming the dominant variant in Western Europe and is now spreading in the Balkans.
At this rate, the university research center, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), predicts that over 50% of the region’s population will be infected with Omicron within six to eight weeks.
In their update, experts from WHO Europe said data collected in recent weeks confirmed that Omicron is highly transmissible: or vaccinated.
Always effective vaccines
Dr Kluge reiterated that the currently approved vaccines continue to provide good protection against serious illness and death, including for Omicron.
In addition, death rates remain stable and continue to be highest in countries with a high incidence of COVID-19, combined with lower vaccination.
Dr Kluge pointed out that “due to the unprecedented scale of transmission, we are now seeing an increase in hospitalizations related to COVID-19. It challenges healthcare systems and service delivery in many countries where Omicron has spread at high speed, ”threatening to overwhelm many others.
Deeply concerned about the variant moving eastwards, Dr Kluge added that “we have yet to see its full impact in countries with lower immunization levels”.
In Denmark, for example, where Omicron cases have exploded in recent weeks, the COVID-19 hospitalization rate for unvaccinated patients was six times higher than for those who were fully vaccinated, in Christmas week.
Data from the UK Obstetric Surveillance System shows that 96% of pregnant women admitted to hospital with symptoms of COVID-19 between May and October 2021 were unvaccinated, a third of whom required respiratory assistance.
Recalling that once again the greatest burden of the pandemic response is borne by health and care staff, as well as other essential frontline workers, Dr Kluge said they were also the most exposed to the virus, and he called for more support for their mental health and well-being.
In an effort to manage the impact on healthcare, economies and societies, Dr Kluge had three messages to convey.
First, for countries not yet affected by the Omicron wave, using high-quality masks in closed and indoor environments – and ensuring that vulnerable people have access to them – is essential.
A full cycle of vaccines as well as boosters should be distributed as soon as possible, and finally, he stressed the importance of immediate isolation if symptoms are felt.
“This is a precious moment, to prepare the response devices, by increasing the stocks of tests and making them widely available free of charge in pharmacies, workplaces and in communities, and by making them available to critical workers. “, he added.
Second, where Omicron’s push began, “the priority should be to avoid and reduce damage among vulnerable people and to minimize disruption to health systems and essential services” by prioritizing vulnerable people. for the primary course and booster doses, and advising them to avoid closures, crowded spaces, offering the ability to work remotely as much as possible until the wave of infection passes.
Prioritizing PCR testing for people at risk of developing serious illness, healthcare workers and other critical workers, and rolling out rapid tests more widely, should also be part of the strategy, continued Dr Kluge. .
Keep schools open
On his final point, the WHO Regional Director for Europe said that keeping schools open has important benefits for the mental, social and educational well-being of children, and that “schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen”.
To ensure this, Dr Kluge stressed the importance of ventilation, hand hygiene and the use of appropriate face masks, as well as making vaccines a priority for teachers and staff, and for vulnerable children when available.
“In the future, the number of people infected will be so high in many countries that schools may not be able to keep all classes open all the time, due to understaffing. This winter, it is advisable to provide e-learning alongside physical presence, so that children can continue their studies when they cannot attend school in person, ”he concluded.