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Over Half of Europe May Be Contaminated With Coronavirus Quickly, W.H.O. Says

LONDON — Greater than half of individuals in Europe may very well be contaminated with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus within the subsequent six to eight weeks, the World Well being Group warned on Tuesday, amid “a brand new west-to-east tidal wave sweeping throughout the area.”

“The area noticed over seven million instances of Covid-19 within the first week of 2022, greater than doubling over a two-week interval,” Hans Kluge, the company’s regional director for Europe, mentioned at a information convention.

Whereas coronavirus vaccines stay remarkably efficient at stopping extreme sickness and demise, the company cautioned towards treating the virus just like the seasonal flu, since a lot stays unknown — notably relating to the severity of the illness in areas with lower vaccination rates, such as Eastern Europe.

The W.H.O. has cautioned for months that booster shots could worsen vaccine equity around the globe, however Dr. Kluge mentioned on Tuesday that they’d play a necessary function in defending essentially the most weak folks from extreme illness and also needs to be used to guard well being staff and different important staff, together with lecturers.

Since Omicron was first detected in late November, it has torn throughout the planet at a tempo unseen throughout two years of the pandemic. As pals, co-workers and members of the family take a look at optimistic, the truth that the virus is shifting rapidly and extensively has been a defining characteristic of this wave of an infection.

However the steep rise that Mr. Kluge cited, based mostly on forecasts by the Institute for Well being Metrics and Analysis, is a stark paradigm shift. Though the institute’s fashions have regularly been criticized by specialists, it’s clear that the virus is spreading rapidly. Even when many people avoid severe illness, the virus guarantees to trigger societal disruption throughout the continent.

Whereas a lot of the general public dialogue has revolved round whether or not this was the second when governments ought to shift insurance policies and restrictions to deal with the coronavirus as an endemic illness — eradicating most restrictions and permitting folks to handle danger in a approach just like the best way they do with influenza — the W.H.O. mentioned it was too early to name this virus endemic.

Catherine Smallwood, a W.H.O. senior emergencies officer, mentioned that one of many key elements in declaring the virus to be endemic was some sense of predictability.

“We’re nonetheless methods off,” she mentioned. “We nonetheless have an enormous quantity of uncertainty.”

Dr. Kluge added that there have been just too many unknown elements, together with precisely how extreme Omicron is for unvaccinated folks and the way excessive the danger is of an infection resulting in “lengthy Covid” signs.

“I’m additionally deeply involved that because the variant strikes east, we now have but to see its full impression in international locations the place ranges of vaccination uptake are decrease, and the place we are going to see extra extreme illness within the unvaccinated,” he mentioned.

Nations within the Balkans and Jap Europe, the place Omicron is simply beginning to unfold extensively, have a lot decrease charges of vaccination than these in Western Europe.

Regardless of the widespread stage of an infection, Dr. Kluge cited knowledge from Denmark suggesting how efficient vaccines stay. The hospitalization rate for unvaccinated people within the newest wave was “sixfold larger than for individuals who have been absolutely vaccinated within the week over Christmas,” he mentioned.

“Enable me to reiterate that the presently authorised vaccines do proceed to supply good safety towards extreme illness and demise, together with for Omicron,” he mentioned. “However due to the unprecedented scale of transmission, we at the moment are seeing rising Covid-19 hospitalizations. It’s difficult well being programs and repair supply in lots of international locations the place Omicron has unfold at velocity and threatens to overwhelm in lots of extra.”

He added:“For international locations not but hit with the Omicron surge, there’s a closing window to behave now and plan for contingencies.”

One of many central struggles of governments throughout Europe has been making an attempt to maintain faculties open, and Dr. Kluge described these efforts as important.

“Faculties ought to be the final locations to shut and the primary to reopen,” he mentioned, though he added that “the numbers of contaminated individuals are going to be so excessive in lots of locations that faculties in lots of international locations are going to be unable to maintain all lessons open” due to sickness and employees shortages.

An instance of that strain was obvious this week in France, the place 10,452 lessons have been canceled on Monday, in response to the federal government. Prime Minister Jean Castex mentioned that going ahead, schoolchildren within the nation could be allowed to do self-tests as a substitute of P.C.R. checks if one in every of their classmates examined optimistic, in an try to hold the training system functioning.

“If we have been to close down lessons as quickly as there’s one first case, making an allowance for the explosion of Omicron, all French faculties could be closed in a matter of days,” Mr. Castex informed France 2 tv.

However as international locations take into account shortening isolation intervals for individuals who take a look at optimistic to restrict the impact on important companies, Dr. Kluge mentioned that “any choice to shorten beneficial quarantine or isolation intervals ought to be taken together with unfavourable Covid-19 checks and solely when thought-about important to protect essential service continuity.”

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