The World Health Organization (WHO) says health systems in many countries have come under “intense pressure” from the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Over 50% of the population in the European Region could be infected with Omicron in the next 6-8 weeks, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
Dr. Hans Kluge, European Regional Director of WHO, told a press conference in Copenhagen today that the 53 countries in the Europe Region saw over 7 million newly reported cases of COVID-19 in the first week of 2022, figures which more than doubled over a two-week period.
As of 10 January, 26 countries in Europe reported that over 1% of their population had been infected with COVID-19 each week.
Although the rate of death and hospitalization have been lower than in previous waves, due to the unprecedented scale of transmission, COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising. “It is challenging health systems and service delivery in many countries where Omicron has spread at speed and threatens to overwhelm in many more,” Dr. Kluge said.
Vaccinations provide good protection
“Allow me to reiterate that the currently approved vaccines do continue to provide good protection against severe disease and death, including for Omicron,” Dr. Kluge said. Taking the example of Denmark, where Omicron cases have exploded in recent weeks, Kluge pointed out that the COVID-19 hospitalization rate for unvaccinated patients was 6-fold higher than for those who were fully vaccinated in the week over Christmas.
Dr. Kluge said that in countries where the Omicron surge has begun, the priority should be to avoid and reduce harm among the vulnerable and minimize disruption to health systems and essential services.
“Any decision to shorten recommended quarantine or isolation periods should be taken in combination with negative COVID-19 tests and only when considered essential to preserve critical service continuity. Any decisions to do so must be taken with careful weighing of the risks and benefits of doing so.”
Schools should be the last to close
Dr. Kluge emphasized the need to keep schools open since they had important benefits for children’s mental, social and educational well-being. “Schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen.”
Due to Omicron’s greater transmissibility, WHO Europe says the following guidelines remain essential:
- Ensure ventilation, hand hygiene and use of appropriate face masks.
- Include teachers and other school staff in priority population groups offered COVID-19 vaccine, and boosters. Offer vulnerable children and children who come into contact with vulnerable adults the COVID-19 vaccine in countries where it is available.
Additionally, countries may wish to consider reviewing the protocols on testing, isolation and quarantine of classroom contacts to minimize disruption to learning, mitigating these risks as far as possible with good ventilation and mask usage.
Dr. Kluge said it is advisable to make arrangements for online learning alongside physical presence, so children can continue with their education when they are unable to attend school in person.
Vaccine sharing and solidarity
The WHO European Region considers that the so-called 5 plus one pandemic stabilizers which have guided its response in recent months are as relevant for tackling Delta or Omicron today as they have ever been. They are: 1. Vaccination, 2. Third doses or boosters. 3. Increased mask use. 4. Ventilation of closed spaces. 5. The application of new clinical protocols.
“Plus, our overarching drive must be towards vaccine sharing and solidarity – across age-groups, sectors, borders, and political lines,” Dr. Kluge said.