Europe: Omicron wave threatens to overwhelm health workers in weeks – WHO

World Health Organisation (WHO) says Omicron wave is threatening to overwhelm health workers in the coming weeks in Europe, with forecasts that more Europeans are likely to become infected with the variant.

Currently, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 represents a “new west to east tidal wave sweeping across the region”, said WHO’s Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, on Tuesday.

According to him, health workers still bear the greatest burden, with forecasts that more than 50 per cent of Europeans are likely to become infected with the Omicron variant in the next six to eight weeks.

In the first week of January, Europe saw over seven million newly-reported cases, more than doubling over a two-week period.

“How each country now responds must be informed by its epidemiological situation, available resources, vaccination uptake status and socioeconomic context,” WHO said.

As of January 10, 26 countries reported that over one per cent of their population was being infected each week. According to WHO, Omicron is becoming the dominant variant in western Europe, and is now spreading in the Balkans.

At this rate, the university-based research centre, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), forecasts that more than 50 per cent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron within six to eight weeks.

In its situation update, experts from WHO Europe said data collected in recent weeks confirmed that Omicron is highly transmissible:

“It is highly transmissible because the mutations it has, enable it to adhere to human cells more easily, and it can infect even those who have been previously infected or vaccinated.”

Kluge reiterated that the currently approved vaccines do continue to provide good protection against severe disease and death, including for Omicron.

Furthermore, mortality rates remain stable and continue to be highest in countries with high COVID-19 incidence, combined with lower vaccination uptake.

Kluge highlighted that “because of the unprecedented scale of transmission, we are now seeing rising COVID-19 hospitalisations.

“It is challenging health systems and service delivery in many countries where Omicron has spread at speed, threatening to overwhelm in many more.’’

Deeply concerned by the variant moving east, Kluge added that “we have yet to see its full impact in countries where levels of vaccination uptake are lower”.

In Denmark for example, where Omicron cases have exploded in recent weeks, the COVID-19 hospitalisation rate for unvaccinated patients was six-fold higher than for those who were fully vaccinated, in the week over Christmas.

Data from the UK Obstetric Surveillance System shows 96 per cent of pregnant women admitted to hospital with COVID-19 symptoms between May and October 2021, were unvaccinated, a third of whom required respiratory support.

Kluge emphasised that health workers carried the highest exposure to the virus, and he called for more support for their mental health and well-being.

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