More than half of Europe could be infected by the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the next six to eight weeks, a World Health Organisation (WHO) official said Tuesday.
“At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50 per cent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next 6 to 8 weeks,” Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said during a virtual news conference.
He urged nations to strengthen mask rules, warning that the window to act was closing, CNN reports.
“For countries not yet hit by the Omicron surge, there is a closing window of opportunity to act now and plan for contingencies.”
Record COVID-19 cases have put Europe under increased pressure this winter, with some countries scaling up restrictions and others, like Austria, Greece and Italy, announcing new vaccine requirements.
Mr Kluge said at the virtual news conference that European and Central Asian countries remain “under intense pressure from COVID-19” in 2022.
“Today, the Omicron variant represents a new West to East tidal wave sweeping across the region on top of the Delta surge that all countries were managing until late 2021,” he said.
He explained that Europe has yet to see the full impact of the variant in countries “where levels of vaccination uptake are lower,” and he is “deeply concerned” about Omicron surging into eastern Europe where “we will see more severe disease in the unvaccinated.”
Eastern European countries have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the region despite an abundance of shots, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which tracks vaccinations in the European Union.
In Bulgaria, only 28 per cent of residents have had two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. In Romania, that figure is at 40.5 per cent, according to ECDC data.
Mr Kluge used the example of Denmark, where he said Omicron cases had “exploded” in recent weeks. The COVID-19 hospitalization rate for unvaccinated Danes was six times higher than for those who were fully vaccinated in the week over Christmas, he said.
Mr Kluge’s statement comes as other health authorities consider strengthening their mask guidelines to help tackle Omicron. On Monday, the Washington Post reported that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was considering recommending N95 or KN95 masks for those who can use them.
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