LONDON – Across Europe, records for new coronavirus infections are set day by day, as the Omicron variant tears populations apart with a speed exceeding anything seen in the past two years of the pandemic.
Like the United States, which on Tuesday recorded a new record for daily cases, European countries are battling an attack of infections caused by a virus that shows no signs of disappearing. Pushed, health officials suspect, by the Omicron variant, Britain, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Spain all set records for new daily case counts this week.
There are early indications that the variant may be milder than previous versions of the virus – with previous vaccinations, boosters and infections all offering some protection against serious illness and death. But the wave of infections is causing chaos, as people scramble for tests, businesses grapple with staff shortages and New Year’s celebrations are called into question.
The World Health Organization warned on Wednesday that the circulation of the Delta variant and the rapid spread of Omicron could overwhelm health systems, even as early data showed vaccines continue to offer some protection to people. vaccinated against serious disease and death of both variants.
“Delta and Omicron are now twin threats that are pushing the number of cases to a record high, leading to spikes in hospitalizations and deaths,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said at the meeting. a press conference in Geneva. “I am very concerned that Omicron, being highly transmissible and spreading at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases.”
In England and Northern Ireland on Wednesday no PCR test appointments were available to book online, and around noon many people reported that none were available to order online through the services of British government health.
Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, a UK organization representing community pharmacies, said the rise in the number of cases and a recent change in government guidelines for testing have led to an increase in demand for rapid lateral flow tests.
âWe have people coming in every two to five minutes to ask for lateral flow tests,â she said. “And we don’t know when it’s going to come back in stock, and it’s completely out of our control.”
In Spain – which is reporting around 100,000 daily infections for the first time in the pandemic – contact tracing efforts are overwhelmed and people are lining up outside hospitals to urgently request tests so they can be approved for medical leave. Although Spain does not see a sharp increase in the number of people requiring intensive care, Mario FontÃ¡n of the Spanish Society of Epidemiology said concerns about the infection were growing.
“A feeling of greater chaos has been created compared to the severity required by the clinical picture,” he told Spanish media.
Portugal has carried out one of the most successful vaccination campaigns in the world, reaching almost all eligible people and reducing the toll caused by the Delta variant. But infections are on the rise again, with Health Minister Marta Temido warning that the number of infections could double every week, given the current trend of Omicron cases.
Even in the Netherlands, which reimposed a nationwide lockdown almost two weeks ago, Omicron is spreading, causing more than 50% of infections over the past week, replacing Delta as the dominant variant, according to l ‘National Institute of Public Health and the Environment.
“The faster spread of this variant of Omicron will lead to additional infections in the near future, which will also increase the number of hospital admissions,” the institute said on Tuesday.
The Dutch Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that all travelers from the United States – which also set daily infection records – will need to self-quarantine for five days and take a negative coronavirus test to enter the country.
Since hospitalization data lags behind infection reports, scientists are warning that it is too early to assess the effect of the Omicron wave on healthcare systems.
At present, none of the European countries setting infection records are reporting a sharp increase in hospitalizations, although the increase was only a few weeks old.
The WHO warned on Wednesday that it was not just patients who were stressing the system, but healthcare workers falling ill and needing to self-isolate.
Because Omicron appears to have spread to Britain weeks before most countries, health experts are looking there for signs of the severity of the variant. England recorded 117,093 cases on Tuesday, a new record, but the number of people in need of intensive care remains below the January peak.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday cited this preliminary data to justify his decision not to tighten the restrictions.
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The American push The US record for daily coronavirus cases has been broken as two highly contagious variants – Delta and Omicron – have spread across the country. The seven-day average of cases in the United States exceeded 267,000 on Tuesday, according to a New York Times database.
âWe are looking at the data, and what we are seeing is that we have cases that are definitely increasing – we have a lot of Omicron cases,â he said, âbut on the other hand, we can see the data on the relative smoothness of Omicron.
But experts have warned that a fuller picture will not be available until early January.
Even though the percentage of people in need of hospital care is significantly lower than in previous waves, the sheer number of infected people could still put intense pressure on health systems.
Right now, the Omicron variant is spreading faster than scientists can answer. It has meant a vacation period of uncertainty, anxiety and shifting restrictions.
And for many countries, the tide is just starting to rise.
In France, which on Wednesday set a record of 208,000 new daily cases, the most recorded in a European country since the start of the pandemic, the Minister of Health, Olivier VÃ©ran, estimated that the increase was “dizzying”.
“This means that 24 hours a day, day and night, every second in our country, two French people are diagnosed positive,” he said, according to Reuters.
Even though Germany reported a doubling of Omicron cases over the past week, the country’s Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said on Wednesday that the actual number of new coronavirus cases had been underreported. He said fewer people get tested during the holidays and the actual incidence rate of infections is about two or three times higher.
In Italy, the Delta variant remains dominant, but Omicron is gaining ground.
Dr Mario Sorlini, who is based near Bergamo, Italy – the medieval town known as the first Covid hotspot in Europe after being ravaged by the virus two years ago – has observed the increase in the number of cases .
Dr Sorlini recalled scrambling during the first outbreak to find oxygen reservoirs for pneumonia patients who could not find room in crowded hospitals as the military took coffins in. warehouses for incineration.
But, for the moment, the situation seems different to him. While it’s too early to know how Omicron will alter the course of the pandemic, its biggest worry so far has been dealing with an increase in demand for swabs for testing.
The region also faces what he called a “mess beyond words” as the demands of fear, infection and isolation combine to cause a widespread staff shortage.
âWe burned ourselves with hot water,â said Dr Sorlini. “And when people burn themselves with hot water, cold water scares them too.”
Emma Bubola, Megan specia and Raphael Minder contributed reports.