Troops have been deployed to hospitals in London. Health workers infected with Covid-19 are treating patients in France. The Netherlands are stranded and tented field hospitals have been set up in Sicily.
Nations across Europe are scrambling to support health systems strained by staff shortages blamed on the new, highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus, which is sending a wave of infections crashing across the continent.
“Omicron means more patients to treat and less staff to treat them,” Stephen Powis, national medical director of Britain’s National Health Service, said on Friday.
The World Health Organization said on Thursday that a record 9.5 million cases of Covid-19 had been identified worldwide in the past week, a 71% increase from the period of the previous 7 days. However, the number of deaths recorded each week has declined.
While omicron appears less serious than the delta variant it quickly replaced, especially in those vaccinated, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned against treating it lightly.
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“Just like the previous variants, omicron hospitalizes people and kills people,” he said. “In fact, the tsunami of cases is so huge and rapid that it is overwhelming health systems around the world.”
It was evident on Friday in London, where some 200 military personnel, including 40 medics, were deployed to hospitals struggling to provide life-saving care amid ‘exceptional’ staff shortages blamed on numbers of sick or isolated workers due to Covid- 19. Next week, another 150 soldiers will assist an ambulance service in North West England.
During a visit to King’s College Hospital in London, Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned that hospital admissions were increasing and the NHS was facing “a difficult few weeks”.
A total of 39,142 NHS staff in hospital trusts in England were absent due to Covid-19 on January 2, up 59% from the previous week, according to figures released by the National Health Service in England.
The UK has also changed its coronavirus testing rules to reduce the time people who test positive have to isolate.
German leaders agreed on Friday to tighten entry requirements to restaurants and bars, and decided to shorten the periods of quarantine and self-isolation.
French authorities this week began allowing healthcare workers infected with the coronavirus but showing few or no symptoms to continue treating patients rather than self-isolating.
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France announced 332,252 cases of the virus per day on Wednesday, the highest number of confirmed infections ever recorded in Europe.
A nurse takes a break from a shift in the Covid-19 intensive care unit at La Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France (AP photo)
The Netherlands has been on a strict lockdown for weeks, a measure designed to ease pressure on overcrowded hospitals and buy time for a slow-start vaccination booster campaign to accelerate. Despite the lockdown, infections hit a record high in the country this week.
In Palermo, Sicily, ancillary facilities were set up outside three hospitals to relieve pressure on emergency rooms and allow paramedics to put patients to bed instead of waiting in the parking lot.
Staff wearing white medical suits and masks pushed stretchers from ambulances into the tents.
Tiziana Maniscalichi, director of Cervello and Civico Palermo hospitals, said most people hospitalized with severe symptoms were not vaccinated.
Ambulances for Covid emergencies wait at Cervello Hospital in Palermo, Sicily, where tented field hospitals have been set up in front of three hospitals to relieve pressure on the emergency room (AP photo)
“We are absolutely under pressure,” Maniscalichi told The Associated Press. “There are at least 70 new cases a day to be hospitalized. We were forced to set up an additional emergency unit in a tent, as the capacity of the regular emergency unit was not sufficient. “
Italy reports a daily record for new coronavirus infections, reaching 219,000 new cases on Thursday. Authorities believe the peak of the outbreak is still two to three weeks away.
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The hospital system is already overwhelmed in the city of Naples, in southern Italy.
“We risk the collapse of the national health service,” said the president of the association of local hospital doctors, Bruno Zuccarelli.
“We could see a rehearsal of the scenes from October and November 2020 which were very, very dangerous,” he added.
The governor of the Campania region surrounding Naples announced on Friday that he planned to delay the reopening of primary and secondary schools on January 10 by at least two weeks because “the conditions are not in place to reopen safely.”
The Italian National Association of Surgical Doctors has called for a similar delay nationwide, but Italy’s health and education ministries have prioritized in-person schooling and insisted that measures to prevention should allow children to return to class after the Christmas holidays as planned.
The Greek government on Friday issued a civil mobilization order that will take effect next Wednesday and requires some private sector doctors to support the public health service during the am omicron push in four northern regions where public hospitals are suffering from ‘a serious staff shortage.
In the UK, which reported nearly 180,000 new cases on Thursday alone, the advance of omicron has forced many workers to stay at home and prompted the government to send troops.
Health service leaders said the military deployment highlighted how the country is struggling to stay on top of the pandemic.
Healthcare workers work inside an ambulance parked outside the Royal London Hospital in east London (AFP photo)
“We have never experienced this level of staff absences before,” Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the British Medical Association, told Sky News.
Air Commodore John Lyle told the BBC the military is still in talks about providing NHS support in other parts of the country.
Nagpaul urged action to reduce infections and better protect healthcare workers against the omicron variant, saying it was important that “the government does not wait to overcome this because people are suffering every day.”
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In Naples, chief medical officer Zuccarelli said mutations in the virus since Italy was hammered in in the first wave in 2020 means children and even babies are now hospitalized with Covid-19.
“The virus adapts to the environment, we have to make it impossible for it to live in, and in order to do that, you absolutely have to vaccinate,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to vaccinate, you must be afraid of the Covid.”