Europe and Central Asia are once again at the “epicentre” of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a possible 500,000 additional deaths before February 1, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s European regional director said at a press conference.
Dr Hans Kluge said the 55% increase in new COVID-19 cases over the last four weeks in the region was due to low vaccination rates and few preventive measures.
Europe and Central Asia accounted for 59% of global cases and 48% of reported deaths, he added.
The winter season, including people gathering in confined closed places, along with low mask use and the Delta variant, have also contributed to the surge.
The WHO experts said that across the region there was a “huge variation in uptake” of the COVID-19 vaccines, as well.
Around one billion vaccine doses have been administered in the region, but only about 47% of people in the region are fully vaccinated.
While there are eight countries in the region that have vaccinated 70% of their population, the rate remains below 10%, Kluge said, emphasising the importance of preventive measures such as mask-wearing in Europe.
He said if Europe and Central Asia had 95% of people wearing masks, they could save up to 188,000 lives of the half a million that could be lost before February 2022.
Kluge also defended the use of the COVID-19 pass, stating that it was a “tool towards individual liberty” instead of something that restricted freedom.
“Transmission is high in many countries across the European region… not just in one country,” said Dr Catherine Smallwood, from the WHO’s emergencies team.
“Of course, Europe as a continent is highly interconnected, more so maybe than other regions, and this may also be a factor in the way that the pandemic evolves.”
Addressing vaccine hesitancy in Europe
In Eastern Europe, where vaccination rates remain low, many countries are struggling to contain deadly waves of the virus.
Speaking from Bucharest, Dr Dorit Nitzan, the regional emergency director for WHO, said the organisation had spoken to members of the community in Romania who wanted to “learn more about the vaccines and to understand the safety and especially among pregnant women”.
Dr Smallwood added that there are “far too many pregnant women hospitalised with COVID-19 across the region at the moment” and that experts needed to do more to explain the benefits and risks of COVID-19 vaccination to them.
Dr Nitzan said the teams on the ground would continue looking at more organised ways to work with healthcare workers to give people more information.
“We feel in some areas it’s a matter of knowing and having access to the information. In others, it’s belonging to specific groups that we need to know how to communicate with,” Dr Nitzan said.
The experts added that in Romania, cases are now coming down and that the country is seeing an uptick in vaccination.