The World Health Organization says that Europe is experiencing a much larger COVID-19 surge than it did at the same time last year.

WHO Europe regional director Dr. Hans Kluge is urging European countries to prepare for a major holiday surge of COVID-19, especially as the Omicron variant continues to spread. Since the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was first detected in November, at least 38 of the 53 countries that make up WHO Europe have said that it was now their dominant strain. These countries include the United Kingdom and Denmark.

“We can see another storm coming,” Kluge said during a press conference on Tuesday. “Within weeks, Omicron will dominate in more countries of the region, pushing already stretched health systems further to the brink.”

Around 2.6 million cases were reported across the region last week, with 27,000 people dying from the virus. Although it is uncertain which strains of COVID-19 these cases are attributed to, Kluge noted that these infection and mortality rates are 40 percent higher than they were in December 2020.

“The sheer volume of new COVID-19 infections could lead to more hospitalizations and widespread disruption to health systems and other critical services,” he continued.

Countries that have not yet been dominated by the variant are becoming increasingly diligent. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday that new restrictions will be put into place in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. Such restrictions include limiting private gatherings to only 10 people, as well as closing clubs and other nightlife activities. Sporting events will also be held in empty stadiums until further notice. In the meantime, Scholz is urging German citizens to get vaccinated.

“If you are unvaccinated, get the jab. If you have had COVID-19 in the past, get the jab. If you are due a booster, get the jab,” he stressed.

As for the Omicron variant, experts say that its symptoms do not differ that much from other coronavirus strains. Those in their 20s and 30s are more likely to catch and spread it.

Although much remains unknown about Omicron, Kluge said it appears to be more infectious than previous variants, leading to “previously unseen transmission rates” in countries with a significant number of Omicron cases. In those countries, cases of the variant are doubling every 1.5 to 3 days.

European governments should keep ramping up their vaccination campaigns, introduce additional measures to slow the spread of the variant, and prepare critical infrastructure like health care systems for the coming surge, Kluge said.

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