Coronavirus cases have tripled across Europe in the past six weeks, accounting for nearly half of all infections globally, while hospitalisation rates have also doubled, according to the World Health Organization.
In a statement on Tuesday, WHO's Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge, described COVID-19 as “a nasty and potentially deadly illness” that people should not underestimate. He said super-infectious relatives of the omicron variant are driving new waves of disease across the continent and that repeat infections could potentially lead to long COVID.
“With rising cases, we’re also seeing a rise in hospitalisations, which are only set to increase further in the autumn and winter months,” Kluge said. “This forecast presents a huge challenge to the health workforce in country after country, already under enormous pressure dealing with unrelenting crises since 2020.”
He added that despite the increase in hospitalisations, intensive care unit admissions have so far remained “relatively low”.
Earlier this week, editors of two UK-based medical journals said the country's National Health Service has never before had so many parts of the system so close to collapsing.
Kamran Abbasi of the BMJ and Alastair McLellan of the Health Service Journal wrote in a joint editorial that the UK government is failing to address persistent problems worsened by COVID, including ambulances lining up outside hospitals that are too overloaded to accept new patients.
They attacked the government's insistence that vaccines have broken the link between infections and hospitalisations. Although vaccines dramatically reduce the chances of severe disease and death, they have not made a significant dent on transmission.
“The government must stop gaslighting the public and be honest about the threat the pandemic still poses to them and the National Health Service,” the editors wrote.
The WHO released its autumn strategy for COVID-19 on Tuesday, in which it called for a second vaccine booster dose for anyone aged five and over with weak immune systems, promoting mask-wearing indoors and on public transportation, and better ventilation in schools, offices and other places.
Kluge said Southern Hemisphere countries are currently experiencing a very active flu season that, combined with COVID, is straining health systems.
“We are likely to see a similar scenario in the Northern Hemisphere,” he said, warning that increased pressure could lead to business, travel and school chaos.
He urged people to make their own decisions, even in countries where authorities have largely abandoned coronavirus restrictions.
“We’re all aware of the tools we have to keep ourselves safe, assess our level of risk and take the necessary steps to protect others if we get infected,” Kluge said. “Just because a mask isn’t mandated doesn’t mean it’s prohibited.”