A new wave of COVID infections from the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus is heading towards Eastern Europe, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.
The WHO’s European office on Monday called for authorities to boost vaccination efforts in the region, warning that a “tidal wave” of infections was approaching.
WHO Europe director, Hans Kluge, said the number of new daily COVID-19 cases had more than doubled in six countries in the region in the past two weeks.
Kluge said the 53-country region has tallied more than 165 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 1.8 million deaths linked to the pandemic – including 25,000 in the last week alone.
“Today, our focus is towards the east of the WHO European region,” Kluge said in Russian at a media briefing, pointing to a surge of Omicron cases. “Over the past two weeks, cases of COVID-19 have more than doubled in six countries in this part of the region [Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine],” the director said.
“As anticipated, the Omicron wave is moving east: 10 eastern member states have now detected this variant,” he added.
Low vaccination rates
Kluge noted vaccine uptake was still relatively low in parts of the region.
Less than 40 percent of those aged above 60 have completed their COVID-19 vaccine series in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
He added that in Bulgaria, Georgia and North Macedonia, less than 40 percent of healthcare workers had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I call on governments, health authorities and relevant partners to closely examine the local reasons influencing lower vaccine demand and acceptance, and devise tailored interventions to increase vaccination rates urgently, based on the context-specific evidence,” Kluge said.
He stressed that in the face of an “Omicron tidal wave”, and “with Delta still circulating widely in the east”, now was “not the moment to lift measures that we know work in reducing the spread of COVID-19”.
These measures include avoiding crowded locations, wearing masks indoors, improving ventilation, and using rapid tests to identify cases early, Kluge added.