As friends and families consider whether to celebrate Christmas together, the World Health Organisation has issued a reminder on Wednesday that “anyone who ignores COVID-19 is…perpetuating it”.
WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, Ahmed Al-Mandhari, in his message said the pandemic was far from over.
Citing the latest modelling data, Al-Mandhari said that 22 countries and territories in the region would probably see more than 17 million cases and over 314,000 deaths by the end of the year.
In spite of the holiday season, “failure to apply the established public health and social measures could cause alarming surges in the number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths,” he said.
While the Omicron variant has already been found in 14 countries across the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean region, more research is needed before its impact on existing vaccines, diagnosis and treatment, is fully understood, the WHO Regional Director explained.
“COVID-19 will continue to evolve in the months to come; simply because the virus continues to mutate.
“This is what viruses do: they change as they circulate,” he said.
He underscored that following COVID-19 prevention guidelines is “the only way we can stop the virus from spreading…now more than ever”.
Al-Mandhari explained why everyone needs to stick to the guidelines: “First, the winter season has been characterized by spikes of cases and deaths.
“Second, the holiday season with gatherings of friends and families. Third, the arrival of Omicron, which has the capacity to become a dominant variant in a matter of weeks wherever it emerges.
“I must also remind you that increasing levels of social mixing provide the virus with the highest opportunity to spread,’’ he said
Although everyone is tired of hearing about COVID-19 and its restrictions, “we need to face an undeniable fact…the virus is still very much present among us,” he added.
WHO’s top official in Europe, Hans Kluge, also issued a statement against the backdrop of rising Omicron cases, revealing that last week, Europe and central Asia saw 27,000 additional COVID-19 deaths and 2.6 million new cases.
Although infections stem predominantly from the Delta variant, since its identification 27 days ago, Omicron has been detected in at least 38 of the 53 Member States in WHO’s European Region.
“We can see another storm coming – Omicron is becoming, or already has become, dominant in several countries, including in Denmark, Portugal and the United Kingdom, where its numbers are doubling every 1.5 to three days, generating previously unseen transmission rates,” he said.
“This variant can evade previous immunity in people – so it can still infect those who have had COVID-19 in the past, those who are unvaccinated, and those who were vaccinated many months ago”.
Furthermore, those who have recovered from COVID-19 are three-to-five times more likely to be re-infected with Omicron, compared to Delta.
On a positive note, early evidence supports the assumption that COVID-19 vaccines continue to do their job and save lives.
Because the virus has been transmitted mostly among adults in their 20s and 30s, spreading in social and workplace gatherings, Kluge, noted “three things that we need to do urgently”.
“Protect ourselves through vaccination, prevent further infections, and prepare health systems for a surge in cases”.
He insisted on the importance of scaling up vaccines for everyone: “If you are unvaccinated – get the jab. If you have had COVID-19 in the past – get the jab. If you are due a booster – get the jab”.
Kluge said that vaccinations should go forward along with other infection-prevention measures, such as avoiding crowded, closed, and confined spaces; keeping physical distances; washing hands; and wearing a mask.
“Governments and authorities need to prepare our response systems for a significant surge,” he underscored.
According to him, testing and tracing capacities must be increased, health and frontline workers supported hospitals prepared for a surge,
“None of our tools are made redundant by Omicron. All are as relevant as before, and we know what to do,” he said.