At the current rate, half of Europeans may be infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in the next six to eight weeks, said Hans Kluge, Europe's Regional Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In the first week of 2022, Europe recorded over seven million new Covid-19 cases, more than double the number of two weeks previous. Kluge called this a "new tidal wave" that is sweeping across the region.
"50 of the 53 countries in Europe and central Asia have now reported cases of Omicron. It is quickly becoming the dominant virus in western Europe and is now spreading in the Balkans," Kluge said. "At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts that more than 50% of the population in the Region will be infected with Omicron in the next 6-8 weeks."
Kluge stressed that the vaccines do provide good protection against severe disease and death, including for Omicron, but added that, "because of the unprecedented scale of transmission," the number of Covid-19 hospitalisations is rising too.
This is challenging healthcare systems and infrastructure in many countries and threatens to overwhelm many more: "Once again, the greatest burden of responding to this pandemic is being carried by our health and care staff, and other essential front-line workers."
Decreasing number of patients in ICU
In Belgium, virologist Steven Van Gucht also underlined the increasing pressure on the country's hospitals and healthcare workers. "You cannot keep stopping the coronavirus," he told Het Laatste Nieuws
. Voicing his concern for the healthcare system, he noted that "Hospitalisations have increased (by 17% on Tuesday
), but not as spectacularly as the infections."
While the increase has even slowed down a bit compared to last week, this could only be temporary, Van Gucht said. "I certainly would not attach too much importance to that just yet."
A positive observation is that the rising hospitalisations are not (yet) reflected in intensive care units (ICUs). On the contrary, the burden on intensive care has decreased. "The number of patients referred to intensive care every day has decreased over the past week." This is currently around 23 patients a day.
"That means that of the people who are now admitted to hospital, between 10% and 15% are referred to intensive care. That is a lot less than it used to be and it confirms the theory that the chance of ending up in intensive care is a lot smaller with Omicron than with the Delta variant. That is good news."
Van Gucht did stress that while stopping the virus is not possible, slowing it down as much as possible is vital: "We cannot afford for all of us to suddenly become infected at the same time, because then our healthcare system will go bankrupt."
"Still, you will never be able to stop the coronavirus completely. Most people will get infected sooner or later. The trick will be to spread it out over time so that our healthcare system does not get into trouble."
He stressed the importance of sticking to the measures, being careful and limiting your contacts as much as possible. "On top of that, we must protect as many people as possible with the vaccine and the booster dose. That will make a world of difference."