Europe is facing a 'difficult winter' as Covid cases surge, WHO warns

·3-min read
Doctors and nurses tend to a patient on the Covid-19 intensive care unit at University Hospital Leipzig - Jens Schlueter
Doctors and nurses tend to a patient on the Covid-19 intensive care unit at University Hospital Leipzig - Jens Schlueter

Europe is facing a difficult winter and the total number of deaths from Covid could hit two million by March 2022, the World Health Organization has warned.

Last week, total reported deaths in WHO's European region, which also covers central Asia, passed the 1.5 million mark, and the number of daily deaths increased to close to 4,200 a day – doubling from 2,100 at the end of September.

As of today, Covid-19 is the number one cause of death across the region.

Hospital beds in 25 countries will experience high or extreme stress, and in 49 countries intensive care units will also experience high or extreme stress, the agency said.

Some countries are already moving patients to other countries due to a lack of intensive care beds – last week, Germany transferred a patient to Italy for Covid treatment.

Dr Hans Kluge, director of the WHO’s Europe office, warned the situation across Europe is “very serious” and European countries “face a difficult winter ahead”.

On Tuesday, France’s Covid infection rate hit the highest level since summer, and Dutch infections hit a new weekly record, climbing 39 per cent on the previous week. Germany, Austria, Spain, Slovenia and Poland also saw a surge in cases.

Dr Kluge encouraged countries to adopt a “vaccine plus approach”. This means getting the standard doses of vaccine, taking a booster if offered, and incorporating preventive measures into normal routines.

“All of us have the opportunity and responsibility to help avert unnecessary tragedy and loss of life, and limit further disruption to society and businesses over this winter season,” he said.

Factors driving the soaring numbers include the high transmissibility of the delta variant, the easing of Covid restrictions and the large number of people who are still not vaccinated.

More than one billion vaccine doses have been administered across the region but only 53.5 per cent of people have completed a full course.

The WHO recommends booster doses for the most vulnerable people in society, including the immunocompromised, those aged over-60 and health-care workers.

But the European Centre for Disease Control has gone one step further, and recommended a booster for all adults aged 18 and over, with priority for those above 40 years old, to tackle waning immunity.

It warned the impact of the delta variant will be “very high” in December and January unless public health measures are applied and vaccine uptake increased.

Dr Kluge also called for a return to measures such as social distancing and mask wearing. The agency estimates that if 95 per cent of people wore masks when out in public - rather than the current 48 per cent - more than 160,000 deaths could be prevented by March.

A study by modellers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, published as a pre-print last week, calculated many countries in Europe could still face large waves of cases and hospitalisations, particularly among older people.

Researchers looked at 19 countries and highlighted Austria, Finland, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and Slovenia as all having the potential to see more deaths and hospitalisations.

They put this down to a combination of lower vaccination rates in older people, lower exposure to the virus in previous waves of the disease and older populations generally.

Dr Kluge concluded: “We should not be without hope, because all of us – governments, health authorities, individuals – can take decisive action to stabilise the pandemic.”

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