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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday that the Omicron variant will likely become the dominant coronavirus strain in the 27-member European Union by mid-January.
“Like many of you, I’m sad that once again this Christmas will be overshadowed by the pandemic,” von der Leyen said at a news conference in Brussels.
Omicron is highly transmissible. A just-released study from researchers in Hong Kong found that it replicates 70 times faster than Delta does once in a host, and the variant is now hurtling across the continent with breathtaking speed, health officials say.
“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus told reporters Tuesday. Even more worrying, people who have already received two COVID-19 doses are getting it, and one fully vaccinated man in the U.K. died as a result.
“I need to be very clear: Vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis,” said Tedros. “It’s not vaccines instead of masks, distancing, ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well.”
In the U.K., which on Wednesday reported a record-breaking 78,610 new cases of COVID in the previous 24 hours, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is warning of a “tidal wave” of even more cases thanks to Omicron, which is already the dominant strain in London. The variant was first detected in the city in late November. Since then, more than 5,300 Omicron cases have been reported.
The latest on the Omicron variant
Across most of Britain, the variant’s doubling time is “now under two days,” Dr. Jenny Harries, head of the U.K. Health Security Agency, told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, adding that Omicron is “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic.” She expects to see numbers of new cases rise to levels that are “quite staggering.”
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control on Wednesday issued a report calling on countries to reintroduce measures such as public masking, social distancing and controlling crowd size on public transport, warning that cases of community transmission are evident across Europe, that the agency is seeing clusters of new infections even among the doubly vaccinated. It also said that “a further rapid increase in Omicron cases is imminent.” The agency even suggested that governments recommend that their citizens curtail the number of visitors and households mixing during the holidays, and predicted a rise in hospitalizations.
"Even if the severity of disease caused by the Omicron variant of concern is equal or lower than the severity of the Delta variant of concern,” ECDC Director Andrea Ammon said in a media statement, “the increased transmissibility and resulting exponential growth of cases will rapidly outweigh any benefits of a potentially reduced severity. Therefore, the Omicron variant of concern is considered likely to cause additional hospitalizations and fatalities, further to those already expected from previous forecasts that consider only the Delta variant."
In Norway, which has seen more than 900 confirmed Omicron cases and on Wednesday reported over 10,000 new cases of all COVID variants (previously, new cases were estimated at 1,000), the Norwegian Institute of Public Health is warning that the COVID situation is “increasingly serious.” If stringent measures aren’t taken, the agency said, the country of 5.4 million could see up to 300,000 new cases per day in short order and record-breaking hospitalizations. In response to the growing threat, the government of Norway announced new restrictions on Tuesday — including a ban on alcohol sales in bars and restaurants.
In Denmark, which has reported 4,700 Omicron cases, the government requires a COVID pass for entry to restaurants and cultural venues, and is ordering early holiday closings of schools and encouraging working at home. The same is true in Belgium, where gyms have been closed and nightclubs shuttered.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has put almost all of Europe on its Level 4, “very high risk” category for COVID, advising Americans to avoid travel to all but Spain, Sweden, Finland and Malta, all of which are designated Level 3, "high risk." Israel has banned its citizens from traveling to Denmark, the U.K. and Brussels. Italy and Greece this week joined Portugal in requiring that all arriving air travelers show a negative COVID test, regardless of their vaccination status.
Spain, which boasts one of Europe’s highest vaccination rates at 83 percent, has begun vaccinating children 5 years and older, and booster campaigns are speeding up. Despite having an indoor mask mandate that has not been lifted for the past 18 months, the country is showing that it too is not immune from the threat posed by Omicron. With numbers of new cases shooting up, the government health agency said Thursday that the country was experiencing “high risk” of transmission.
But Spanish locals, who have consistently followed health agency guidelines since March 2020, are starting to show signs of COVID fatigue. A new trend can be seen in parts of Barcelona, where suddenly cashiers in stores are defiantly going unmasked. “I’m tired of this,” said one cashier when asked why she had ditched her mask despite the continuing mandate. “I’m sick of wearing a mask 14 hours a day. It’s too much. I’m done.”
Meanwhile, Spanish health authorities are warning that more than half of the 36 Omicron cases thus far detected in Spain were spread via community generation, not by travelers from abroad. Even in the U.K., which has the most cases of Omicron in Europe, politicians furiously debated Tuesday whether to require a COVID pass for entry to restaurants and soccer matches. While the measure ultimately passed, over 100 British legislators voted against it.
Protests against COVID restrictions have been popping up in European cities from Paris to Rotterdam, Vienna to Brussels. In the German state of Saxony, torch-bearing demonstrators chanted outside the home of the health minister, and death threats have been made against the governor. And last week in a city in northern Greece, vigilantes — upset that a school principal was administering COVID checks to students entering the building — handcuffed him and drove him to the police station, saying he was violating their constitutional rights. Instead, the principal was released, and the kidnappers were arrested.