UPDATE: European countries ‘must act urgently’ amid worsening Covid outlook

Medical personnel works at the intensive care unit with Covid-19 patients in a hospital in Freising near Munich, southern Germany, on November 16, 2021, amid the ongoing coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP
The EU health agency on Wednesday appealed to member states to "urgently" introduce measures to counter surging Covid-19 cases, a day after the WHO Europe warned that 700,000 more may die on the continent this winter.

With more than 2.5 million cases and almost 30,000 deaths reported in the past week, Europe is by far the region currently worst hit by the virus, according to AFP’s tally.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on Wednesday said its modelling predicted a grim outcome unless measures were taken “urgently”.

“The potential burden of disease in the EU/EEA from the Delta variant will be very high in December and January unless public health measures are applied now in combination with continued efforts to increase vaccine uptake in the total population,” it said in a statement.

Under 70 percent of the overall population in the EU and the EuropeanEconomic Area (Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland) have been fully vaccinated.

“This leaves a large vaccination gap that cannot be bridged rapidly and gives ample room for the virus to spread,” the ECDC said.

“We need to urgently focus on closing this immunity gap, offer booster doses to all adults, and reintroduce non-pharmaceutical measures,” ECDC director Andrea Ammon said.

‘700,000’ deaths likely in coming months

Some 700,000 could die in the coming months, the WHO said on Tuesday, as cases creep up across Europe, prompting some countries to reimpose tough restrictions.

The WHO expects “high or extreme stress in intensive care units (ICUs) in 49 out of 53 countries between now and March 1, 2022”.

“Cumulative reported deaths are projected to reach over 2.2 million by spring next year,” it added, up from the current 1.5 million.

Covid-19 is the leading cause of death across Europe and Central Asia, the WHO reported, citing figures from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

READ ALSO: From lockdowns to bans on unvaccinated – How Europe is tackling new Covid wave

The rise in Europe was being driven by a combination of the highly-contagious Delta variant, insufficient vaccination coverage and the easing of measures such as mask wearing and physical distancing, it said.

“In recent months many countries have indicated to their populations that COVID-19 no longer represents an emergency threat and have eased measures such as mask wearing and physical distancing in crowded or confined spaces. Now, the weather has turned colder, and people are gathering indoors,” WHO Europe said.

According to WHO data, Covid-related deaths increased last week to nearly 4,200 a day, doubling from 2,100 deaths a day at the end of September.

‘Vaccine plus’ approach

The WHO also said evidence was growing that vaccine-induced protection against infection and mild disease was declining but credited the Covid health passes brought in by many countries as “a collective tool to enable societies and people to continue with regular activities.”

“The Covid-19 situation across Europe and Central Asia is very serious. We face a challenging winter ahead,” regional director for WHO Europe, Hans Kluge, said in a statement.

He called for a “vaccine plus” approach, consisting of vaccinations, social distancing, the use of face masks and hand washing.

“In order to live with this virus and continue our daily lives, we need to take a “vaccine plus” approach,” Kluge said.

“This means getting the standard doses of vaccine, taking a booster if offered, as well as incorporating preventive measures into our normal routines.

“Taken together, wearing a mask, washing hands, ventilating indoor spaces, keeping physical distance, and sneezing into your elbow are simple, effective ways of gaining control over the virus and keeping societies going.

“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,” said Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. 

The WHO said face masks reduce Covid incidence by 53 percent according to a recent study, and “over 160,000 deaths could be prevented (by March 1st) if universal mask coverage of 95 percent was achieved”.

It also added that over one billion doses have been given in the WHO European Region, with 53.5% of people having completed their vaccine dose series.  

However, this figure hides wide differences between countries, as seen in the chart below.

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