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Low-vaccinated Eastern Europe braces for a post-holiday Omicron surge

Two masked passengers seen through a bus window
Passengers on a bus gaze out at healthcare workers protesting outside a government building in Bucharest, Romania, on Tuesday.
(Vadim Ghirda / Associated Press)
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As the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant rages through Western Europe, officials and experts in low-vaccinated Eastern Europe are anticipating a post-holiday explosion of cases in much of their own region.

Many countries in Eastern Europe only recently emerged from infection surges that put a catastrophic strain on healthcare systems, and at times have tallied some of the highest COVID-19 death rates globally.

Now, with Omicron already confirmed across the region and the winter holidays bringing more community gatherings and international travel, health officials are predicting a spike in the coming weeks.

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Adriana Pistol, director of Romania’s National Center for Surveillance and Control of Communicable Diseases, warned Wednesday that the country could see a peak of 25,000 new daily cases during the expected next wave. Romania is the 27-member European Union’s second-least vaccinated nation.

Noting that about 60% of Romanians over 65 or living with chronic diseases remain unvaccinated, Pistol said: “Even if the Omicron strain does not have the same level of severity ... the health system will be overloaded anyway and reach levels recorded this year in October.”

Romania saw huge lines at borders before Christmas as hundreds of thousands of citizens flocked home, many from the West. The government started requiring travelers to complete passenger locator forms as of Dec. 20 to help track infections, but Pistol said many have failed to fill them out.

Some former vaccine skeptics in Eastern Europe have shifted over to the other side as infections surge and authorities battle against disinformation.

Only 40% of Romania’s population of around 19 million has been fully inoculated against COVID-19. Although booster doses are considered necessary to provide adequate protection against Omicron, Pistol noted that three-quarters of the country’s double-vaccinated people have yet to receive an additional shot.

Romania’s under-funded public health system teetered on the brink of collapse a few months ago, during the country’s last explosion of coronavirus cases. Hospital morgues ran out of space for bodies, and some patients were transferred abroad for treatment because COVID-19 intensive care units were filled to capacity.

Exhausted medical personnel have watched with dread as countries with high vaccination rates such as France, Italy and Britain reported record caseloads in recent days as Omicron spreads.

“It’s very clear that the fifth wave will probably hit us in January,” said Dragos Zaharia, a primary care doctor at the Marius Nasta Institute of Pneumology in Bucharest. “We just hope that there will be fewer deaths, fewer severe cases and fewer hospital admissions.”

Bosnia’s rate of vaccination against the coronavirus is one of the lowest in Europe, but one population in the Balkan country has bucked the national trend: its prison inmates.

Neighboring Bulgaria is the EU’s least-vaccinated member nation, with just 32% of adults having received a double dose. It, too, suffered a deadly fall outbreak, but its vaccine rollout has continued at a sluggish pace. Government data show that only 255,000 booster shots have been administered in the country of 7 million people.

“Epidemiologists predict that Wave 5 will hit Bulgaria at the end of January and probably harder in February,” Mariya Sharkova, a public health law specialist based in Plovdiv, told the Associated Press. “Holidays will bring Omicron to Bulgaria and probably will have a negative impact on the spread of COVID-19.”

In the Balkans, Bosnia, Slovenia, Serbia, and Croatia have all confirmed Omicron cases but so far not tightened restrictions to control the variant’s spread.

Serbian authorities decided this week to allow planned outdoor concerts to go ahead on New Year’s Eve. Experts opposed the move and called for requiring COVID-19 status passes for 24 hours because of concerns over Omicron.

Germany’s health minister says the country’s coronavirus infection rate is likely two to three times higher than statistics currently show.

“We are aware that a significant number of our nationals will return home from the European Union for holidays, as well as ... foreign guests visiting our ski resorts,” said Goran Cerkez, the assistant health minister in the larger of Bosnia’s two highly autonomous regions. “But we hope that we will weather what is ahead of us.”

The Czech Republic, which has a population of 10.7 million, is among the European countries hardest hit by the pandemic and is currently registering around 6,000 new cases a day. The country’s health ministry on Wednesday estimated that the Omicron variant currently accounts for about 10% of all new cases and that figure could rise to 25% by Jan. 10.

Despite concerns over the variant, Romanian authorities eased some internal restrictions in early December and are allowing businesses to stay open all night on New Year’s Eve.

Andrei Otelea, 31, who lives in Britain and is unvaccinated against COVID-19, arrived with his young family at Sibiu International Airport in central Romania on Tuesday, returning home for the first time since the pandemic started.

“We are a little bit scared [of visiting grandparents], but we’re going to go and keep our distance for the moment,” Otelea said.


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