Europe is once again at the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic after 1.8 million new cases and 24,000 new deaths have been registered in the region last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.
The transmission rate across the 53 countries of the WHO European Region is of "grave concern" and Europe is now "at another critical point of the resurgence of the pandemic," Hans Kluge, WHO's Regional Director for Europe, said on Thursday.
Amid the sharp increase in infections, some countries in the region are now taking new measures to slow the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, Xinhua news agency reported.
During the past four weeks, the WHO's European Region has experienced a startling 55-plus per cent increase in new Covid-19 cases, and it now accounts for 59 per cent of all cases globally and 48 per cent of all reported deaths.
Several countries have seen daily infections reach record highs over the past few days. Germany on Friday recorded an all-time high of 37,120 new infections within one day. The country's seven-day Covid-19 incidence rate rose to 169.9 cases per 100,000 inhabitants from 154.5 cases on Thursday and 139.2 cases one week ago.
"We are now noticing that this fourth wave is coming with full force, that it has clearly picked up speed with record infection figures for Germany in the last 18 months," Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn said after a conference with the federal state Health Ministers.
In neighboring France, the national public Health agency reported 8,998 new cases and 28 deaths in a 24-hour span, while 6,735 patients are currently hospitalized, including 334 new admissions.
Poland has recorded 15,904 new cases and 152 deaths over the past 24 hours to Friday morning. And in Romania, the number of Covid-19 related deaths reached 50,087 on Friday, putting the eastern European country with a population of about 19 million among the hardest-hit nations.
The Netherlands recorded more than 10,000 new infections in one day, the first time since July 18, official data showed on Thursday.
The unprecedented increase in Europe, according to Kluge, is mainly due to insufficient vaccination rates and the relaxation of preventive public health and social measures.
"On average, only 47 per cent of people in the European Region have completed a full vaccination series. While eight countries have now exceeded 70 per cent coverage, in two the rate remains below ten per cent," he said.
To contain the spread of the virus, current vaccination rates are not sufficient even among those European Union (EU) countries which have achieved high rates of vaccination for both their adult population and older teenagers, experts suggest.
"Seventy per cent is nowhere near enough. We need to get rates up to more than 95 per cent," Martin McKee, Professor of European public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), told Xinhua.
"We need a 'vaccine plus' strategy, which combines high rates of vaccination with continued mitigation (measures), in particular improved ventilation and face masks," he said.
Finland, for example, is half a percentage point away from reaching its target of 80 per cent vaccination coverage among those above 12 years. But the country's Minister for Family Affairs and Social Services, Krista Kiuru said on Friday that Finland was "among the countries where the epidemic is not in control," noting that 80 per cent coverage is not sufficient to keep society open.
"It would be desirable to reach up to 90 per cent or more in vaccine coverage. We want vaccination coverage to be constantly increased," Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told national broadcaster Yle.
As Europe is struggling with rising infections, some countries have announced or are considering new restrictive measures to try to curb the surge.
In Croatia, which reported the highest daily tally of 6,932 on Friday, the government announced several new measures, effective on November 15.
Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic said these will include the ban to hold public events and gatherings attended by more than 50 people, unless it is attended by people with EU digital Covid-19 certificates.
At all public events, wearing a medical mask would be mandatory. Moreover, Covid-19 certificates would be applied to all civil servants and employees, as well as companies founded by the state or local government, as a condition of performing duties, the Minister added.
Starting Saturday, wearing a face mask will be mandatory again in public indoor places in the Netherlands. The requirement of a "corona pass" that has been mandatory for access to restaurants, cafes, theatres and stadiums, will also be extended to museums, zoos, amusement parks, gyms, swimming pools, terraces and sports events outside and indoors.
In neighbouring Belgium, where an average of 6,928 people were infected with Covid-19 daily between October 26 and November 1, Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said on Friday that it was "urgent" to take measures to slow the spread of the virus.