General alert. He European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on Thursday raised the level of alarm before the new variants of coronavirus and recommended restricting mobility as much as possible, avoiding “non-essential” trips and calling on countries to prepare their health systems for a foreseeable escalation of cases. The publication of its risk analysis report coincided with a telematics summit of European leaders in which the political alarm was raised in a very significant way about the serious health situation that the continent is going through.
The meeting of the Presidents of Government of the Union, called by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, aspired to coordinate a common response to the spread of these new variants and avoid a chaotic situation like the one experienced during the first wave.
In its risk report, the ECDC considers “very high” the probability of “introduction and community spread” of the new British, South African and Brazilian variants of coronavirus in the EU “due to their greater transmissibility”, according to its evaluation report of risk. And it warns of the possibility that the number of infections will grow, which could put health systems in trouble, as is happening in the United Kingdom.
“We are seeing how the epidemiological situation deteriorates in areas where the most transmissible variants of the virus are found,” said Andrea Ammon, ECDC director, on Thursday. “The increase in the number of infections will cause an increase in the rates of hospitalization and mortality in all age groups, especially those of older age or those with comorbidities.”
The agency’s warning comes at a time of impasse in which transmission is “widespread”, but with most countries “experiencing stable or declining case rates.” The absolute numbers of infections are high, growing in older age groups, mortality rates are also on the rise, and so are hospital admissions and ICU admissions in a third of countries, according to the latest ECDC data, up to January 17.
The cumulative incidence in the last 14 days is 453 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the EU and the situation is worrying in Ireland (with 1,444 per 100,000 inhabitants), the Czech Republic (1,362), Portugal (1,215) and Slovenia (1,132 ). The 14-day mortality rates per million inhabitants are also alarming in Slovenia (230) and the Czech Republic (223). In Spain, the situation as of January 17 was 804 infections reported per 100,000 inhabitants and a mortality rate of 57 people per million inhabitants.
Since last week, the ECDC has been warning that 13 countries have seen increasing rates of infections, more than double than in the previous seven days. And around a third of the EU countries showed an increase in ICU admissions, hospital admissions, infections among the elderly and mortality ratios. And it warned that it would “increase in the coming weeks.”
The report on the new variants reflects this concern and asks governments for caution in easing restrictions: “National authorities should rather be willing to apply even stricter measures.” It recommends avoiding non-essential travel and calls on countries to prepare “their health systems for a new escalation”, increase their capacity to sequence new mutations and accelerate the vaccination of people at risk and key workers.
The skyrocketing figures in some Member States and the risk of cross-border spread has led several countries in the heart of Europe, such as Germany or Belgium, to demand greater border controls or even the ban on non-essential travel.
This Thursday’s virtual meeting, the first summit of 2021 on the pandemic, became the forum to debate a battery of measures to try to contain the escalation before it is too late. Among them, that of restricting mobility. As in the first wave, it would be the inevitable consequence if contagion is not stopped. That is the thesis of countries like Germany or Belgium, which fear an importation of cases that will disrupt their national strategies to contain the epidemic. The Commission continued to insist this Thursday that “a generalized border closure makes no sense.” The Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, defended keeping them open and supported the creation of a vaccination certificate for those already immunized.
Hans Kluge, director for Europe of the World Health Organization, also believes that a more surgical border intervention would be better than a sharp veto on movements. “Closing borders to stop new variants only makes sense if the variant is identified as soon as possible and when its transmission is local.”
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