The World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional office for Europe urged governments to take urgent action against rising COVID-19 cases and deaths across the region.
It came as they held gave an update on Europe’s COVID surge.
They warned that one-in-10 people in WHO’s European region will have had a positive test for COVID-19 by the end of the week.
Here are the other key takeaways:
Mandatory 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 people who are unvaccinated in an effort to encourage more people to get the COVID-19 jab.
In Italy, a super health pass, proving vaccination or recovery, is needed to access cinemas and indoor dining, while in Germany, the unvaccinated are restricted from much of public life.
Austria, meanwhile, will mandate vaccinations from February 1 in order to encourage more people to get the jab.
But Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe, said mandating vaccines should be a “last resort” and that countries must reach out to communities first.
“Mandates around vaccination are an absolute last resort and only applicable when all other feasible options to improve vaccination uptake have been exhausted,” Kluge said.
Europe should be careful over discriminating against the unvaccinated
In response to a Euronews question about restrictions on people who are unvaccinated, Dr Catherine Smallwood, WHO Europe’s senior emergency officer, said countries should use other public health methods such as mask-wearing before imposing “last-resort” measures.
“When countries are having to resort to last-resort measures such as lockdowns or discriminatory interventions that really create distrust and apathy at the population level, then they have not used the tools that we have available to us in the appropriate manner,” she said.
Dr Kluge insisted that countries should work to avoid lockdowns in order to “safeguard” people’s mental health.
In terms of “discriminating between vaccinated and unvaccinated,” Dr Kluge said countries “have to be very careful it doesn’t increase tensions in the society”. He pointed out that there have already been violent protests over such measures.
The COVID-19 health pass, however, “is not infringing freedom. It’s a collective tool towards individual liberty,” he said.
Highest COVID-19 cases are among children
WHO Europe officials said the highest cases were seen among children aged 5 to 14, who despite having less severe forms of the virus, can spread it to more vulnerable adults.
“It is not unusual today to see two to three times higher incidence among young children than in the average population. The health risks extend beyond the children themselves,” Dr Kluge said.
“As school holidays approach, we must also acknowledge that children contaminate their parents and grandparents at home, with a ten times increased risk for these adults to develop severe disease, be hospitalised or die when non-vaccinated.”
The WHO urged governments to encourage mask-wearing and ventilation in primary schools as well as regular testing for COVID-19.
Kluge added that “vaccinating children should be discussed and considered nationally, as part of school protection measure.”
Booster is ‘very important’ while continuing to demonstrate ‘international solidarity’
Dr Kluge said that elderly populations and people who are immunocompromised should receive a third dose or booster dose as vaccine immunity wanes.
But, he said, “the top priority is to get doses to the people who received zero doses be it in Europe and Central Asia or globally”.
“We need to vaccinate with a full series and a booster to people but at the same time it’s very important to demonstrate international solidarity…there shouldn’t be any dose unused or destroyed,” Dr Kluge said.
Dr Siddhartha Datta, WHO Europe’s vaccines programme manager, said that vaccine-induced protection does wane over time but that the priority is that everyone receives an initial vaccination series.
He said that elderly population groups and healthcare workers should receive a booster dose. Datta said that WHO was still reviewing data on giving a booster dose to the wider population.
Too early to tell on Omicron variant
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 driving a rise in cases in South Africa.
There are already more than 400 confirmed cases of the variant confirmed in countries in the European region, WHO said.
But Dr Kluge said that countries should focus on limiting transmission of the Delta variant, which is dominant across the region.
“It’s too early to make definite recommendations on the Omicron but Delta is still dominant in our regions, and the tools are the same so whatever we do to combat the Delta variant will benefit us (if) Omicron becomes much more dominant,” Kluge said.
Dr Smallwood said that Omicron has been able to spread rapidly in areas with the Delta variant and vaccinated populations but that the extent of how much it will spread remains to be determined.
Smallwood pointed out that the risk of reinfection with Omicron is significantly higher and urged people who have recovered from COVID-19 to get vaccinated.
“Do not think that just because you’ve had COVID in the past, that you’re immune from it in the future,” she said.