One person is dying from coronavirus every 17 seconds in Europe, the regional head of the World Health Organization has said, as the pandemic continues to threaten to overwhelm national health systems around the continent.
Dr Hans Kluge said on Thursday the 53 countries that make up the WHO’s European region had recorded more than 15.7m Covid-19 cases – including 4m this month alone – and nearly 355,000 deaths.
More than 80% of countries were reporting high 14-day incidence rates greater than 100 per 100,000 people, Kluge said, with nearly a third recording very high rates of greater than 700 per 100,000.
“As a result, we are seeing increasing signals related to overwhelmed health systems,” he said, noting that intensive care wards in France have been at 95%-plus capacity for 10 days and those in Switzerland are at full capacity.
But Kluge said stricter measures introduced by governments were starting to show promise, with new weekly cases decreasing from over 2m the week before last to roughly 1.8m last week. “It’s a small signal, but it’s a signal nevertheless,” he said.
Recent news on the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines also represented “a great hope in the war against this virus”, Kluge said, as did recent developments in rapid diagnostic or anti-gen tests.
He said the WHO still believed strict lockdowns should be a last resort because of their “significant collateral damage”, including mental health problems, substance abuse and domestic violence, and said that if mask use reached 95% lockdowns should not be needed.
Generalised lockdowns also had a negative impact when they were lifted too fast, he said, often requiring the reimposition of strict measures. They would be better replaced with tier systems based on local levels of community transmission.
It was particularly vital to keep schools open, Kluge said. “Children are not considered primary drivers of transmission and, as such, school closures are not considered to be an effective measure for the control of Covid-19.”
He asked countries considering closing schools to consider the adverse effects in terms of educational outcomes and mental and social wellbeing, and at least ensure children in vulnerable situations and with special needs received full support.
Looking ahead to the end of the year, Kluge said Christmas would certainly be different, “but that does not mean it cannot be merry”. He noted the success of the recent distanced and online Ramadan and Diwali and said similar solutions could and should be found for Christmas.