More than 1.5 million people have already died from COVID-19 in the 53 countries that make up the World Health Organization’s European region. That means the death toll could top 2.2 million by early 2022.
Europe “remains firmly in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the WHO said, noting that the coronavirus is the leading cause of death across Europe and Central Asia. Between now and March, intensive care units in 49 of the 53 countries will face “high or extreme stress.”
The WHO reported more than 2.4 million new cases across the region last week, which made up 67% of all COVID-19 cases worldwide during that time. Deaths increased to nearly 4,200 per day, doubling the 2,100 daily deaths reported at the end of September.
France reported more than 30,000 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, marking the first time since August that the country had so many cases in 24 hours, according to Reuters. Daily cases are up 54%, compared to last week, and the week-over-week increase has been around 50% for 11 days straight.
“That is a very major increase in the infection rate, which shows that we really are, unfortunately, in a fifth wave of the epidemic,” Olivier Veran, the country’s health minister, told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Germany also set a pandemic record on Monday with a 7-day average of more than 51,000 daily new cases, according to CNBC. Russia reported a record high of more than 1,200 daily deaths for the week that ended Monday.
The WHO said the latest wave is being fueled by several things: the more contagious Delta variant, people moving indoors due to colder weather, the easing of restrictions, and slow vaccine uptake in some countries.
About 53% of the population is fully vaccinated in the WHO’s European region, but rates vary from 10% to more than 80% across countries. Many eastern countries have lower rates, with 24% of the population fully vaccinated in Bulgaria, as compared to about 87% in Portugal, 78% in Demark, 71% in Germany, and 65% in Austria.
“As we approach the end of 2021, let’s do everything we can by getting vaccinated and taking personal protective measures to avoid the last resort of lockdowns and school closures,” Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe, said in the WHO statement.
Some countries are putting strict measures into place again to contain the spread of the virus, which has sparked protests, according to The New York Times. On Monday, Austria returned to lockdown for at least 10 days, closing shops, restaurants, and holiday markets. The Netherlands also began a partial lockdown during the weekend, and Germany may announce new restrictions this week.
In addition, more countries are approving booster shots for fully vaccinated people, including France, Germany, and Greece, according to the BBC. More evidence is showing that vaccine protection is waning and breakthrough cases are becoming more common, according to the WHO, which encouraged countries to approve booster doses for vulnerable groups, health care workers, and people over age 60.
Europe and Central Asia face “a challenging winter ahead,” Kluge said. He called for a “vaccine plus” approach, which includes getting vaccinated, following physical distancing guidelines, and wearing masks.
Face masks reduce coronavirus transmission by 53%, the WHO said, which could prevent more than 160,000 deaths by March 1.
The U.S. State Department has responded to the European surge by adding Denmark and Germany to its “Do Not Travel” list, which is the highest-risk category for travel, according to The Washington Post.
The Level 4 designation means that both the CDC and State Department recommend against traveling to those countries, even if people are vaccinated. Other European countries were added to the Level 4 list last week, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Iceland.