Omicron and the COVID wave in Europe: takeaways from the WHO press conference

The World Health Organization (WHO) regional office for Europe has urged governments to take urgent action against the increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the region.

It came as they were keen to give an update on the COVID outbreak in Europe.

They warned that one in ten people in the WHO European region will have tested positive for COVID-19 by the end of the week.

Here are the other key points to remember:

Compulsory vaccination should be a ‘last resort’

Even though 66.4% of people in European Union countries are fully vaccinated against the virus, many governments have imposed new measures on unvaccinated people to encourage more people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

In Italy, a super health pass, proving vaccination or convalescence, is required to access cinemas and indoor dining rooms, while in Germany, the unvaccinated are restricted of much of public life.

Austria, meanwhile, will impose vaccinations from February 1 to encourage more people to get vaccinated.

But Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said compulsory vaccines should be a “last resort” and countries must reach out to communities first.

“The mandates around immunization are an absolute last resort and only apply when all other possible options to improve immunization have been exhausted,” Kluge said.

Europe must be careful not to discriminate against the unvaccinated

In response to a question from Euronews about restrictions on unvaccinated people, Dr Catherine Smallwood, WHO Europe’s emergency manager, said countries should use other public health methods such as wearing the mask before imposing “last resort” measures.

“When countries have to resort to measures last resort such as blockages or discriminatory actions that really create distrust and apathy in the population, then they did not use the tools we have appropriately, “she said. .

Dr Kluge insisted that countries should strive to avoid blockages in order to “protect” people’s mental health.

In terms of “discriminating between vaccinated and unvaccinated”, Dr Kluge said countries “must be very careful not to increase tensions in society”. He stressed that there had already been violent protests against such measures.

The COVID-19 health pass, however, “does not infringe on freedom. It is a collective tool towards individual freedom,” he said.

Highest COVID-19 cases are among children

WHO Europe officials have said that the highest cases were in children aged 5 to 14 years, which, despite milder forms of the virus can transmit it to vulnerable adults.

“It is not uncommon today to see an incidence two to three times higher in young children than in the average population. The health risks extend beyond the children themselves,” said Dr. Kluge.

“As the school holidays approach, it must also be recognized that children contaminate their parents and grandparents at home, with a tenfold increased risk for these adults of developing a serious illness, of being hospitalized or of dying. ‘they are not vaccinated. “

WHO has urged governments to encourage the wearing of masks and ventilation in primary schools as well as regular testing for COVID-19.

Kluge added that “the vaccination of children should be discussed and considered at the national level, as part of a measure to protect the school”.

Booster is “very important” while continuing to show “international solidarity”

Dr Kluge said elderly populations and those with compromised immunity should receive a third or booster dose as immunity to the vaccine wanes.

But, he said, “the top priority is to deliver doses to people who have not received any doses, whether in Europe and Central Asia or around the world.”

“We need to vaccinate people with a full set and a booster, but at the same time it is very important to show international solidarity… there should be no unused or destroyed doses,” Dr Kluge said.

Dr Siddhartha Datta, WHO Europe vaccination program manager, said the protection induced by vaccination wanes over time, but the priority is for everyone to receive a first set of vaccinations.

He said older population groups and healthcare workers should be given a booster dose. Datta said the WHO is still reviewing data on giving a booster dose to the general population.

Too early to say on the variant Omicron

An increasing number of countries in the European region are also reporting cases of the new Omicron variant.

The variant is expected to be more transmissible and is already leading to an increase in cases in South Africa.

There are already more than 400 confirmed cases of the variant confirmed in the countries of the European region, WHO said.

But Dr Kluge said countries should focus on limiting transmission of the Delta variant, which is dominant across the region.

“It’s too early to make definitive recommendations on the Omicron but Delta is still dominant in our regions, and the tools are the same, so whatever we do to tackle the Delta variant will be of benefit to us (if) Omicron becomes much more dominant, ”Kluge said. .

Dr Smallwood said Omicron was able to spread rapidly to areas with the Delta variant and vaccinated populations, but the extent of its spread remains to be determined.

Smallwood stressed that the risk of re-infection with Omicron is significantly higher and urged people who have recovered from COVID-19 to get vaccinated.

“Don’t think that just because you’ve had COVID in the past you are immune to it in the future,” she said.

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