How Europe’s healthcare crumbles under Omicron’s rapid spread – the peak is yet to come

Europe’s health system is once again being hit by a rapid spread of the Omicron version of the coronavirus during the holiday period, with large numbers of key workers sick or self-isolating and experts predicting the peak of infections are yet to come. Is.

Despite early studies showing a lower risk of serious illness or hospitalization from Omicron than the previously dominant Delta variant, health networks in Spain, the UK, Italy and beyond have found themselves in increasingly hopeless situations.

On Friday, Britain began deploying military personnel to support hospitals facing staff shortages and extreme pressure due to record COVID-19 cases in the country.

“Omicron means more patients to treat and less staff to treat,” Professor Stephen Powis, Medical Director of the National Health Service (NHS), said in a statement.

In the United States, hospitals are postponing elective surgeries to free up staff and beds, while Spain’s primary health network is so strained that authorities in Aragon’s northeastern region on the last day of 2021 are planning to reintroduce retired medical workers and nurses. authorized.

“The exponential increase in cases means that primary care can neither adequately carry out their contact tracing and vaccination campaign duties nor carry out their normal activities,” officials said in a statement.

Front-line workers such as nurses and physiotherapists are the hardest hit, the Spanish nursing union SATSE said, citing the example of Andalusia, where they accounted for more than 30pc of staff on Covid-related leave in the second half of December.

The sunny southern region, where large numbers of Britons and Germans have settled, “created serious issues in service coverage” with nearly 1,000 workers infected with the coronavirus in the last weeks of the year, the statement said.

In the Netherlands, infection rates among hospital workers, especially nurses and nursing assistants, are also rising rapidly, Dutch daily De Telegraaf reported on Friday after a survey of eight major hospitals.


People walk next to the National Covid Memorial Wall, dedicating thousands of hand-painted hearts and messages to those in the UK who have died from COVID-19, official figures released this week As of 150,000 have passed, London, Britain, January 9, 2022, in the midst of the pandemic of the coronavirus disease. Reuters / Toby Melville

In the worst-case scenario, one in four tested positive for Christmas, as is the case at Amsterdam University Medical Center, where 25pc of workers are now testing positive, compared to 5pc a week ago.

Dutch hospitals are considering changing their quarantine rules so infected workers who do not have symptoms can come to work, De Telegraaf said, as Dutch daily case numbers break records despite a strict lockdown since 19 December.

In Italy, the problem of infected health workers – more than 12,800 according to data collected last week – is compounded by the suspension of doctors, nurses and administrative staff who have not been vaccinated and make up more than 4 percent of the total workforce. represent.

In a last-ditch bid to bridge gaps in service, Italian health agencies are freezing staff holidays, postponing them for other periods, and freezing or postponing scheduled surgeries that have been Not classified as “immediate”.

Britain’s Health Minister Sajid Javid said on Friday that with hospitalizations already in place since last February, the NHS is likely to thin even more as Covid-19 progresses among older people.

Javid said in a broadcast clip, “We are still seeing increasing hospitalizations, especially in older age groups with increasing case rates. This is a matter of concern.” “I think we have to be honest … when we look at the NHS, it will be a rocky few weeks ahead.”

According to NHS England, an average of around 80,000 medical workers were absent from work every day in the week to 2 January – the most recent period for which data is available – a 13 percent increase from the previous week. Nearly half, or 44pc, of those absences were due to Covid-19, an increase of more than a fifth from a week earlier.

Rafael Bengoa, co-founder of the Bilbao Institute for Health and Strategy and a former senior WHO official, said Spain had failed to take adequate measures to reinforce critical services and that the pressure would remain for several weeks.

“Spain has several weeks – basically the whole of January – of rising cases …

He considers it unlikely that a more infectious version that is even more lethal than Omicron will appear and is optimistic that the current wave could signal the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

“The epidemic doesn’t end with a big surge but with small waves because so many people have been infected or vaccinated … we shouldn’t be worried about anything more than small waves after the omicron.”

Visit our COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard for updates on the roll out of the immunization program and the rate of coronavirus cases in Ireland