Europe records surging Omicron cases

 Saturday, July 30, 2022 


With demand for travel roaring back, European cities are heaving with tourists.

As temperatures soared across the continent, men and women crowded around Rome’s Trevi fountain, lazed on Barcelona’s famous beaches and wandered among the remains of the ancient Acropolis in Athens.

People are on the move again, more than two years after a pandemic which forced many countries to close their borders, bringing money back into tourism-dependent economies. But just as travel has returned in full swing, so too has COVID-19.

Cases tripled across Europe in the six weeks prior to July 19, accounting for nearly half of all infections globally, according to the World Health Organisation.

The new wave of disease across the continent is being driven by new variants, this time sticky sub-lineages of Omicron referred to by a collection of letters and numbers as BA.2 and BA.5.

While intensive care admissions have remained low, hospitalisation rates have doubled during the recent surge, according to WHO.

WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Hans Henri P Kluge warned that they are in a similar situation to last summer.

What is different this year is how authorities are responding to the wave.

Instead of treating the surge in cases as an emergency, Europe appears to be committed to living with the virus, free from lockdowns and mandates and with borders wide open.

Tourists flock to Europe’s hot spots as sticky Omicron spreads

In Greece, the warmer weather has coincided with the lifting of most restrictions and an influx of foreigners arriving on its shores.

A mixture of tourists and locals linger on Athen’s cobbled streets, or navigate the many narrow alleyways of Mykonos and Santorini, their cruise ships docked somewhere nearby.

Greece is on the path to a tourism recovery as the only country with total and direct air connectivity now exceeding pre-pandemic levels, according to the Airport Industry Connectivity Report for 2022.

But the surge in tourism has been accompanied by an explosion in cases. Health authorities in Greece announced 136,077 new cases of COVID-19 and 271 virus-related deaths during the week of July 18 to 24.

Cases are most concentrated in popular tourist regions, the Greek health ministry has said.

After more than two years of uncertainty of whether Greece’s tourism would ever return to normal, Ms Kouri has greeted the flood of visitors to her country with a mixture of relief and happiness, even as COVID-19 cases have spiked.

Locals are more likely to wear masks on the streets, in shops and on public transport than tourists, Ms Kouri observed.

People are just not talking about COVID at all. They want to move on, Professor Jaya Dantas, an expert in international health at Curtin University, said.

With vaccinations leading to a drop in serious disease and death rates, pandemic-era restrictions have been steadily wound back in the past year.

In May, the European Union dropped its mask mandate for passengers on flights.

In the same month, Greece lifted COVID-19 restrictions on foreign and domestic flights, requiring passengers and crew only to wear a mask onboard, while Italy did away with the health pass that had been required to enter restaurants, cinemas, gyms and other venues.

People who catch COVID-19 are no longer required to go into self-isolation in Spain.

And in Germany, travellers no longer have to prove their vaccinated to enter the country although the Federal Health Minister has recommended younger people who want to enjoy the summer without the risk of contracting COVID-19 should get a second booster in consultation with their family doctor.

For travellers, these were indications the world was returning to normal, but some experts say given the pandemic’s unpredictability, relying only on vaccines has come too early, particularly as sub-variants drive new spikes in infections.

Along with the risk posed to vulnerable people, experts say allowing the virus to run unchecked gives it more opportunity to develop new mutations that evade immunity.

As new variants and sub-variants continue to emerge, it already feels as if we have become locked in a vicious cycle with more transmission spurring more variants and more variants driving more transmission.

European health regulators, recognising the rapidly escalating situation on the continent, have already started to recommend further action, including a second booster for high-risk groups. But pandemic fatigue remains an issue.

‘Everybody likes public health when it’s invisible’

Theofanis Exadaktylos, a professor in European Politics at the University of Surrey, has studied the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) implemented by the national governments of Greece and Cyprus during 2020 to limit the spread of the virus and mitigate the pandemic’s economic fallout.

Along with a team of scientists, Mr Exadaktylos found mask-wearing and working from home in Greece better managed the pandemic by reducing cases and had less severe economic impacts than rolling lockdowns.

It was a cheap and quick measure that if everybody was doing, maybe we wouldn’t have [had] to resort to things like lockdowns, or restrictions of mobility or moving around the country in general.

Yet, as the virus has changed, so too have our personal and public reactions toward it, according to Dr Macneil.

The sense of unity people felt at the start of the pandemic has given way to individual responsibility.

Even as Europe has come to rely on a vaccine-only strategy, not enough people have taken up the three or four jabs necessary to prevent the spread of Omicron.

The WHO is encouraging European governments to “increase vaccine uptake in the general population” ahead of autumn and winter when other respiratory illnesses are likely to circulate.

People’s behaviour, however, remains a challenge, according to Dr Macneil.

A path back to normal, in his view, would mean developing what has been called a “vaccine-plus” strategy, which incorporates more public education about vaccination and masking and policy development to improve indoor air quality.

Some European agencies and health officials are encouraging similar measures, including Mr Kluge who has called for greater mask use and improved ventilation.

The calls have also been echoed by experts in Australia.

Australia is behind Europe on learning to ‘live with COVID’

With Australia currently in the grip of a third wave fuelled by Omicron sub-lineages, Europe’s summer could provide lessons for the future.

There are some key differences between Europe and Australia’s situations, Professor Dantas says, including our higher vaccination rates, lower population and less densely populated cities.

But Europe could offer some lessons in how countries are learning to live with the virus.

Australia has been behind in some ways, because we had such hard border closures till November 2021 in the eastern states and March 2022 in Western Australia, Professor Dantas said.

Other countries are ahead of us in terms of learning to live with the virus, and they have just gone ahead and learned to live with [it].

With pandemic management increasingly becoming an individual responsibility, people will need to evaluate their own risks before leaving the house or travelling abroad.

That includes all the usual considerations like where you are going, who you are meeting with, whether you are meeting indoors, how long you will be indoors and whether you will be wearing a mask.

But Professor Bennett says it is also important to take into account past infections.

It might not be wise for those that have already had three or more infections to be travelling to an area where infections are rising, she says, considering recent data on how worse health outcomes increase with each re-infection.

While vaccines have put us in a better position than two and half years ago, our path out of the pandemic may depend on striking the right balance between complacency and constant vigilance.

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