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COVID-19 STATS

Why Europe could be headed for pandemic ‘endgame’

The Omicron variant has moved the Covid-19 pandemic into a new phase and could bring it to an end in Europe, the WHO Europe director said on Monday.

People queue outside a pharmacy to receive Covid-19 antigenic tests
People queue outside a pharmacy to receive Covid-19 antigenic tests on January 10, 2022 in Marseille, southern France, as Covid-19 cases soar in Europe. (Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP)

“It’s plausible that the region is moving towards a kind of pandemic endgame,” Hans Kluge told AFP in an interview, adding that Omicron could infect 60 percent of Europeans by March.

In a statement on Monday he added: “We are entering a new phase, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant sweeping Europe, from west to east.”

Once the current surge of Omicron sweeping across Europe subsides, “there will be for quite some weeks and months a global immunity, either thanks to the vaccine or because people have immunity due to the infection, and also lowering seasonality”.

“We anticipate that there will be a period of quiet before Covid-19 may come back towards the end of the year, but not necessarily the pandemic coming back,” Kluge said.

“The pandemic is far from over, but I am hopeful we can end the emergency phase in 2022 and address other health threats that urgently require our attention.”

 

Top US scientist Anthony Fauci expressed similar optimism on Sunday, telling ABC News talk show “This Week” that with Covid-19 cases coming down “rather sharply” in parts of the United States, “things are looking good”.

While cautioning against over confidence, he said that if the recent fall in case numbers in areas like the US’s northeast continued, “I believe that you will start to see a turnaround throughout the entire country”.

The WHO regional office for Africa also said last week that cases of Covid had plummeted in that region and deaths were declining for the first time since the Omicron-dominated fourth wave of the virus reached its peak.

‘Other variants could emerge’

The Omicron variant, which studies have shown is more contagious than Delta but generally leads to less severe infection among vaccinated people, has raised long-awaited hopes that Covid-19 is starting to shift from a pandemic to a more manageable endemic illness like seasonal flu.

But Kluge cautioned that it was still too early to consider Covid-19 endemic.

“There is a lot of talk about endemic but endemic means … that it is possible to predict what’s going to happen. This virus has surprised (us) more than once so we have to be very careful,” Kluge said.

With Omicron spreading so widely, other variants could still emerge, he warned.

The European Commissioner for Internal Markets, Thierry Breton, whose brief includes vaccine production, said Sunday that it will be possible to adapt existing vaccines to any new variants that may emerge.

“We will be able to better resist, including to new variants”, he told French television LCI.

“We will be ready to adapt the vaccines, especially the mRNA ones, if necessary to adapt them to more virulent variants”.

In the WHO Europe region, which comprises 53 countries including several in Central Asia, Omicron now accounts for 31.8% of cases across the European Region, up from 15% the previous week, and 6.3% the week before that. 

Omicron is now the dominant variant in the European Union and the European Economic Area (EEA, or Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein), the EU health agency ECDC said last week.

Impact on Europe

Because of the very fast spread of the variant across Europe, Kluge said emphasis ought to be on “minimising disruption of hospitals, schools and the economy, and putting huge efforts on protecting the vulnerable”, rather than measures to stop transmission.

He meanwhile urged people to exercise personal responsibility.

“If you don’t feel well, stay home, take a self test. If you’re positive, isolate”, he said.

Kluge said the priority was to stabilise the situation in Europe, where vaccination levels range across countries from 25 to 95 percent of the population, leading to varying degrees of strain on hospitals and health-care system.

“Stabilising means that the health system is no longer overwhelmed due to Covid-19 and can continue with the essential health services, which have unfortunately been really disrupted for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and routine immunisation”.

Asked whether fourth doses would be necessary to bring an end to the pandemic, Kluge was cautious, saying only that “we know that that immunity jumps up after each shot of the vaccine”.

The pandemic has so far killed nearly 5.6 million million people worldwide, according to official figures compiled by AFP, 1.7 million of them in Europe.

Kluge said: “Every single hour since the pandemic’s onset, 99 people in the Region have lost their lives to COVID-19.

“We mourn the more than 1.7 million people in the European Region who are no longer with us. Gains in poverty reduction have been reversed, with more than 4 million people in the Region now pushed under the 5.50 USD a day poverty line. Children’s education and mental well-being have suffered immensely.”

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COVID-19 STATS

Italy’s emergency rooms ‘pushed to limits’ by Covid and flu cases

Doctors have warned that Covid along with a "very rapid" rise in seasonal flu cases means Italy's emergency rooms risk being overwhelmed over the holidays.

Italy's emergency rooms 'pushed to limits' by Covid and flu cases

Fabio De Iaco, president of the Italian Society of Emergency and Urgent Medicine (Simeu), sounded the alarm on Monday, saying hospital admissions have risen 50 percent since September.

“Flu and Covid are pushing emergency rooms to their limit,” said De Iaco, adding that he fears the problem “can only get worse in the coming weeks.”

Hospitals expect the peak to arrive during the holidays, “when we will have more elderly patients but also more staff off sick.”

The problem is mainly down to a sharp spike in seasonal flu cases, he said. This year’s flu wave began three weeks ago, around a month ahead of usual annual trends.

“We see numbers that pre-pandemic were reached in mid-January,” says De Iaco. 

“Children began to arrive in the emergency room first, but now the age of patients is rising and will increase during the holidays, when viruses are typically passed between generations.”

Silvestro Scotti, general secretary of the Italian Federation of General Practitioners (Fimmg), told news outlets that Italy’s current seasonal flu case numbers are at their highest in 15 years.

READ ALSO: When, where and how to get the flu vaccine in Italy

“Every week a family doctor has about 100 patients who fall ill, which translates into at least two to three calls per week for each one, plus visits and a lot of bureaucracy. We’re practically going crazy,” he said.

At the same time, hospitals are dealing with an influx of Covid patients. While the latest data from the Gimbe health think tank shows a slight decrease in new case numbers, both hospitalisations and intensive care admissions are up.

According to De Iaco, the symptoms of this flu variant (that many Italian outlets are calling the influenza australiana or the ‘Australian flu’) are similar to those for Covid, including a high fever and respiratory difficulties.

This can make it hard for doctors to immediately distinguish between the two, leading to Covid and flu patients mixing in the wards.

“Many arrive with flu symptoms in the emergency room and we discover that it is Covid only at the time of the test,” says De Iaco.

“And for those who test positive we have difficulty finding staff and a place for their isolation.” 

He encouraged patients to stay at home and avoid going to the emergency room unless they were particularly vulnerable, warning that they “face long waits and risk becoming infected with other viruses.”

Doctors are appealing for those who are eligible to get vaccinated against the flu to avoid inundating hospitals.

“It is vital that those at risk choose to get vaccinated as soon as possible, otherwise we risk living through some very serious months,” said Fimmg secretary Scotti.

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