Rapid spread of Omicron may ‘quickly overwhelm’ healthcare systems

WHO warning comes as fresh restrictions expected in Europe in run-up to Christmas

So many people are becoming infected with the Omicron variant of Covid-19 that healthcare systems may quickly become overwhelmed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned as the virus sweeps through Europe in the run-up to Christmas.

In new advice to governments, the WHO warned that the variant first detected in Africa was "spreading significantly faster" than the older Delta strain, with the number of infections doubling every 1.5 to three days.

“Given rapidly increasing case counts, it is possible that many healthcare systems may become quickly overwhelmed,” it warned, noting that the variant was “spreading rapidly in countries with high levels of population immunity”.

The warning came as governments around Europe began reviewing pandemic restrictions, fearing a seasonal surge, with several imposing testing requirements on travellers.


‘Massive fifth wave’

Germany's health minister Karl Lauterbach has warned that a "massive fifth wave" of the virus is on its way and the German government is expected to introduce new measures including limits on private gatherings in the coming days.

Italy's prime minister, Mario Draghi, has convened a meeting of his Covid-19 task force to consider how to curb a surge in infections and a rise in deaths to 137 people in 24 hours.

The news agency Bloomberg reported that Italy was reviewing a package of new measures to slow the surge in cases during the Christmas holidays in a bid to avoid drastic measures taken by other European countries. Italy currently operates a three-tier system that defines restrictions for each region, and regions are also authorised to adopt specific additional new restrictions.

The Netherlands began some of its toughest restrictions of the pandemic yet on Sunday, shutting non-essential shops and restaurants until January 14th, while its government scrambled to speed up one of Europe's slowest booster campaigns that has seen just 9 per cent of people so far receive a third jab.

Speaking in Geneva, the WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that holiday celebrations would lead to "increased cases, overwhelmed health systems and more deaths" and urged people to postpone gatherings. "An event cancelled is better than a life cancelled," he said.

Reduce risk

However, WHO infectious disease epidemiologist Dr Maria Van Kerkhove recommended that people could reduce risk by limiting the size of gatherings, getting vaccinated, holding events outside, or wearing masks and opening windows if indoors.

“No matter what, I am sure that people will continue to find ways to celebrate. I think that’s important, it’s been a very difficult couple of years,” Dr Van Kerkhove said. “Right now there is no zero risk. There hasn’t been zero risk since this virus emerged. But there are ways you can reduce the risk.”

Further afield, Morocco banned New Year's Eve parties and Canada's second most populous province of Quebec shut bars, gyms and casinos, urged people to work from home, and closed most schools until January 10th.

WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan told reporters there was hope that with the right approach Covid-19 could become "a relatively mild disease that is easily prevented, that is easily treated".

“If we can keep virus transmission to a minimum, then we can bring the pandemic to an end,” he said.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times