Officials and specialists in low-vaccinated Eastern Europe expect a post-holiday boom of COVID-19 infections in most of the region while the fast-spreading coronavirus variant omicron rages across Western Europe.
Many nations in Eastern Europe have just recently recovered from virus waves that wreaked havoc on health-care systems and resulted in some of the world’s highest pandemic mortality rates.
Now that omicron has been verified across the area, and the winter holidays will bring more community meetings and foreign travel, public health authorities are forecasting a significant viral outbreak in the coming weeks.
During the projected next wave, Adriana Pistol, head of Romania’s National Center for Surveillance and Control of Communicable Diseases, warned that the nation might witness a peak of 25,000 new cases per day. Romania has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the European Union.
“Even if the omicron strain does not have the same degree of severity(,)… the health system will be overburdened anyhow and approach levels reported this year in October,” Pistol warned, noting that around 60% of Romanians over 65 or living with chronic conditions are unvaccinated.
Hundreds of thousands of Romanians, mainly from the West, rushed home before Christmas, creating massive lineups at the crossings. To assist track illnesses, the government began asking travelers to fill out passenger location forms on Dec. 20, but Pistol claimed many had failed to do so.
Only about 40% of Romania’s 19 million people have been adequately immunized against COVID-19. Despite the fact that booster doses are thought to be essential for optimal protection against omicron, Pistol reported that three-quarters of the country’s completely jabbed persons had yet to obtain another injection.
During the country’s most recent outbreak of viral infections, Romania’s understaffed public health system was on the verge of collapsing. Because COVID-19 critical care centers were at capacity, some patients were sent to other countries for treatment.
As omicron expanded in recent days, exhausted medical staff watched with horror as nations with strong vaccination rates, like as France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, reported record cases.
“The fifth wave will most likely reach us in January,” Dragos Zaharia, a primary care doctor at Bucharest’s Marius Nasta Institute of Pneumology, warned. “All we want is for there to be fewer deaths, serious cases, and hospital admissions.”
Neighboring Bulgaria has the lowest vaccination rate in the EU, with only 32% of adults receiving a complete vaccination. It, too, experienced a fatal fall epidemic, but its vaccine distribution has been slow. In a country with a population of 7 million people, just 255,000 booster vaccines had been delivered, according to government data.
“Epidemiologists believe that wave five will reach Bulgaria around the end of January, and most likely harder in February,” Mariya Sharkova, a Plovdiv-based public health law specialist, told The Associated Press. “Holidays will bring omicron to Bulgaria and will most likely have a detrimental influence on COVID-19 propagation.”
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Serbia, and Croatia have all verified omicron instances in the Balkans area of Europe, but have not yet increased restrictions to curb the variant’s spread.
Serbian officials agreed this week to allow scheduled New Year’s Eve outdoor performances to take place. Due to omicron issues, experts opposed the change and advocated for mandating COVID-19 status permits to be valid for 24 hours.
“We are aware that a considerable number of our citizens will come home for vacations from the European Union, as well as…foreign tourists visiting our ski resorts,” Goran Cerkez, the assistant health minister in Bosnia’s bigger of two largely autonomous regions, stated. “However, we are hopeful that we will be able to weather the storm.”
The Czech Republic, which has a population of 10.7 million people, is one of the European countries most impacted by the epidemic, with roughly 6,000 new cases being reported every day. The country’s Health Ministry estimated on Wednesday that the omicron form accounted for around 10% of all new cases and might rise to 25% by January 10.
Some specialists warn against finding solace in preliminary research that suggests the omicron form generates milder COVID-19 instances.
Even if that is the case, Romania still “has a lot of individuals prone to hospitalization,” according to Mircea Iliescu, a Romanian doctor in human evolutionary genetics at the University of Cambridge.
“We can only infer that many of the instances being transmitted currently are omicron,” he added, “since it transmits so quickly compared to delta.” “If other nations are moving closer to making it the majority strain, we should be there in a few weeks.”
Despite the variant’s fears, Romanian officials relaxed certain internal limits in early December, enabling shops to stay up all night on New Year’s Eve.
Andrei Otelea, 31, of the United Kingdom, who is unvaccinated against COVID-19, returned with his young family at Sibiu International Airport in central Romania on Tuesday, his first visit home since the epidemic began.
“We’re a little apprehensive about visiting grandparents), but we’ll go and keep our distance for the time being,” Otelea explained.