The Omicron variant is forecasted to infect more than half of all Europeans in the next six to eight weeks, a World Health Organization official said Tuesday as he urged nations to strengthen mask rules and warned that the window to act was closing.
Record Covid-19 cases have put Europe under increased pressure this winter, with some countries scaling up restrictions and others, like Austria, Greece and Italy, announcing new vaccine requirements.
Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, told a virtual news conference that European and Central Asian countries remain “under intense pressure from Covid-19” in 2022.
“Today, the Omicron variant represents a new West to East tidal wave sweeping across the region on top of the Delta surge that all countries were managing until late 2021,” he said Tuesday.
“At this rate the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50% of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next 6 to 8 weeks.”
He called on countries not yet affected by the surge “to mandate the use of high quality masks in closed and indoor settings and ensure that vulnerable individuals have access to them” due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
He explained that Europe has yet to see the full impact of the variant in countries “where levels of vaccination uptake are lower,” and he is “deeply concerned” about Omicron surging into eastern Europe where “we will see more severe disease in the unvaccinated.”
Eastern European countries have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the region despite an abundance of shots, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which tracks vaccinations in the European Union.
In Bulgaria, only 28% of residents have had two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine. In Romania, that figure is at 40.5%, according to ECDC data.
“For countries not yet hit by the Omicron surge, there is a closing window of opportunity to act now and plan for contingencies,” Kluge warned.
Kluge used the example of Denmark, where he said Omicron cases had “exploded” in recent weeks. The Covid-19 hospitalization rate for unvaccinated Danes was six times higher than for those who were fully vaccinated in the week over Christmas.
Kluge’s calls come as other health authorities consider strengthening their mask guidelines to help tackle Omicron. On Monday, the Washington Post reported that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was considering recommending N95 or KN95 masks for those who can use them.
As school terms begin amid record surges in many European countries, Kluge stressed that they should be “the last places to close and the first to reopen.”
He acknowledged that the variant will continue to infect large numbers of people and “schools may be unable to keep all classes open all the time, due to a lack of staff.”
But he stressed that “keeping schools open has important benefits for children’s mental, social and educational well-being,” recommending that arrangements should be made for “online learning alongside physical presence, so children can continue with their education when they are unable to attend school in person.”
He reiterated WHO’s recommendations for educational settings: ventilation, hand hygiene and the use of appropriate face masks.
Kluge added that “countries may wish to consider reviewing the protocols on testing, isolation and quarantine of classroom contacts to minimize disruption to learning, mitigating these risks as far as possible with good ventilation and mask usage.”
CNN’s John Bonifield contributed to this report.