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Spike in Omicron variant cases puts Europe on edge

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People line up for PCR tests in Brussels, Belgium.

BELGIUM: Across Europe, records for new coronavirus infections are being set day after day, as the omicron variant tears through populations with a swiftness outpacing anything witnessed over the past two years of the pandemic.

European nations are struggling against an onslaught of infections from a virus that shows no sign of going away. Driven, health officials suspect, by the omicron variant, Britain, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Spain all set records for new daily case counts this week.

There are early indications that the variant might be milder than previous versions of the virus — with vaccinations, boosters and previous infections all offering some protection against serious illness and death. But the surge of infections is causing chaos, as people scramble to obtain tests, businesses grapple with staff shortages and New Year’s festivities are thrown into question.

In England and Northern Ireland on Wednesday, there were no PCR test appointments available to book online, and around midday, many people reported that none were available to order online through the British government’s health services.

In Spain — which is reporting roughly 100,000 daily infections for the first time in the pandemic — contact-tracing efforts are being overwhelmed and people are lining up outside hospitals urgently seeking tests so they can be approved for medical leave. Although Spain is not seeing a sharp rise in people needing intensive care, Mario Fontán of the Spanish Epidemiology Society said that concerns over infection were rising.

Portugal had one of the most successful vaccination campaigns in the world, reaching nearly every person eligible and driving down the toll wrought by the delta variant. But infections are climbing again, with the health minister, Marta Temido, warning that the number of infections could double every eight days, given the current trend of omicron cases.

Even in the Netherlands, which nearly two weeks ago reimposed a nationwide lockdown, omicron is spreading, causing more than 50% of infections in the past week, replacing delta as the dominant variant, according to the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.

England recorded 117,093 cases Tuesday, a new high, but the number of people needing intensive care remains below January’s peak.

On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson cited this preliminary data to justify his decision not to step up restrictions.

Even though Germany reported a doubling of omicron cases over the past week, the country’s health minister, Karl Lauterbach, said Wednesday that the true number of new coronavirus cases has been underreported. He said that fewer people are testing over the holidays and that the actual incidence rate of infections is about two or three times higher.

In Italy, the delta variant remains dominant, but omicron is gaining ground.

Dr. Mario Sorlini, who is based near Bergamo — the medieval town known as Europe’s first COVID hot spot after it was ravaged by the virus two years ago — has been watching as case numbers have soared.


Friday, December 31, 2021 – 01:00

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