Francesco Guarasio and Jason Hovet | Reuters
BRUSSELS – Coronavirus infections hit records in parts of Europe on Wednesday, and the continent was once again the epicenter of a pandemic that led to new travel restrictions and saw health experts push for increased use of booster shots.
Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Hungary have all reported new highs for daily infections as winter sweeps across Europe and people gather indoors ahead of Christmas, providing an ideal breeding ground for COVID-19.
Over the past week, the number of new cases in the Americas has increased by 23%, mostly in North America, a sign that the region may also face a resurgence of infections.
The disease has swept the world in two years since it was first detected in central China, infecting more than 258 million people and killing 5.4 million.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the EU’s public health agency, has recommended revaccination for all adults, with priority for those over 40, in contrast to its previous guidance that suggested considering additional doses for the elderly … weak people and people with weakened immune systems.
“Available data from Israel and the UK show significant increases in protection against infection and severe illness after the booster dose in all age groups in the short term,” the ECDC said Wednesday.
Many EU countries have already started to introduce booster doses, but use different criteria for prioritizing them and different intervals between first and booster vaccines.
ECDC chief Andrea Ammon said the boosters would increase protection against weakened infections and “could potentially reduce transmission in the population and prevent additional hospitalizations and deaths.”
She advised countries with low vaccination rates to expedite vaccine roll-out and warned of the high risks of a further spike in deaths and hospitalizations in Europe in December and January if the recommended measures are not taken.
The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, acknowledging that Europe is once again at the epicenter of a pandemic, warned against a “false sense of security” about the protection afforded by vaccines.
“No country is picked out of the woods,” he told reporters, adding that he hoped there would be consensus at next week’s World Trade Organization ministerial meeting on IP’s abandonment of pandemic vaccines.
The Swedish government and health officials have said Sweden will begin gradually rolling out booster packs for all adults. MRNA booster vaccines were offered to people aged 65 and over with the goal of eventually expanding the vaccines to other populations.
“We are faced with an unreliable winter,” Health Minister Lena Hallengren said at a press conference. “You can do your part by staying at home if you get sick, or by getting the vaccine if you haven’t already, and by taking the booster shot when offered.”
Slovakia reported the highest daily rise in infections on Wednesday, when the government approved a two-week quarantine to curb the world’s fastest spike in infections.
Restaurants and non-essential shops will close and travel will be limited to shopping, work, school, or doctor visits.
“The situation is serious,” said Prime Minister Eduard Heger, “we got here because (existing) measures were not followed.”
Neighboring Austria has already blocked at least 10 days this week, becoming the first to re-impose such restrictions. It will also require the entire population to be vaccinated from February 1, which infuriates many in a country where skepticism is high about government restrictions on individual freedoms.
The Czech Republic reported the highest daily rise in infections, surpassing 25,000 cases for the first time. The government wants to introduce mandatory vaccines for people over 60 and for certain professions, such as healthcare workers.
Prime Minister Andrei Babish said Wednesday that the cabinet will discuss additional measures on Friday.
The Netherlands has reported more than 23,700 coronavirus cases in 24 hours, the highest since the start of the pandemic, and the government will announce new measures on Friday.
Hungary reported a record 12,637 new cases of COVID-19 daily.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government, which opposes further lockdowns for fear of stifling the economy, launched a vaccination campaign this week, offering vaccinations without prior registration.
Authorities in Russia, where daily deaths from coronavirus are close to record levels, said they are browsing social media and media websites to find people spreading false claims about the dangers of vaccination.
France will announce new COVID measures on Thursday, while Italy is tightening restrictions on people who have not been vaccinated by preventing them from attending cinemas, restaurants and sporting events as part of the new restrictions that will take effect December 6.
Portugal, one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, will booster a quarter of its population by the end of January. Cases there reached a four-month daily high on Wednesday.
However, mortality remains well below January levels and infection rates are much lower than in most Western European countries.