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Half of Europe set to catch Omicron, WHO says on 2nd anniversary of 1st COVID death

More than half of people in Europe are projected to catch Omicron in the next two months, the World Health Organization said Tuesday, as Poland passed the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths and millions in China faced fresh lockdowns on the two-year anniversary of the world’s first COVID-19 fatality.

The highly transmissible variant has ripped through countries at breakneck pace, forcing governments to impose fresh measures and scramble to roll out booster shots.

Europe has been at the epicenter of alarming new outbreaks — hospital admissions and deaths are creeping up as well — and the World Health Organization said Tuesday Omicron could infect half of all people in the region at current infection rates.

“The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts that more than 50 percent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks,” said Hans Kluge, regional director for WHO’s European office.

The WHO’s European region covers 53 countries and territories including several in Central Asia, and Kluge said 50 of them had Omicron cases.

Kluge confirmed that Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, but stressed that “approved vaccines do continue to provide good protection against severe disease and death, including for Omicron.”

The warning bell came exactly two years after the first person died of a virus only later identified as SARS-COV-2 — a 61-year-old man in Wuhan, China, where the virus was first detected.

Since January 11, 2020, known fatalities in the pandemic have soared to nearly 5.5 million.

This photo taken on January 8, 2022 shows residents queueing to undergo nucleic acid tests for COVID-19 in Huaxian county, Anyang city, in China’s central Henan province. (Photo by AFP)

China largely tamed its initial outbreak with a mix of lockdowns, border closures and mass testing, but flare-ups in some major cities are testing that zero-COVID strategy just weeks before the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The city of Anyang in Henan province on Monday night told its five million residents to not leave their homes or drive cars on the roads, China’s official Xinhua news agency said.

Last week, the one million people in Yuzhou — also a city in Henan — were told to stay at home. Xi’an, home to 13 million people, is in its third week of lockdown.

China reported 110 new local virus cases Tuesday, a tiny figure compared with the hundreds of thousands emerging daily in global hotspots such as the United States.

But they are a cause of alarm for Chinese authorities as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Games, with the event already expected to have tight coronavirus safety protocols.

Hong Kong, which has some of the toughest coronavirus border restrictions in the world, also ramped up its curbs Tuesday to fight an Omicron outbreak, shutting kindergartens and primary schools until early February.

The same day, Japan extended until the end of next month a strict COVID border policy that bars almost all new foreign arrivals. Japanese authorities also announced the reopening of mass vaccination centers as they fight an Omicron-fueled surge.

People walk on pedestrian crossing at Ginza shopping street on January 11, 2022, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

The known COVID death toll in Poland, where the government has also urged people to get vaccinated, crossed 100,000, Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said Tuesday.

Nearly a quarter of those deaths — some 24,000 — occurred in the most recent wave of infection that began in October, a period in which vaccines have been widely available in the European Union nation.

Niedzielski said there are now 18,000 hospitalizations, making this “the most difficult situation compared to other waves.” The vaccination rate in Poland is 55.8% — a much lower rate of vaccination than in the countries of western Europe but much higher than in some other central European countries, like Bulgaria and Romania.

France on Monday said COVID rules would be eased for schools as record-high case numbers shut down thousands of classes and sparked concern among parents and teachers.

Under the first change, parents will no longer be obliged to pick up their child immediately for COVID testing if he or she is a contact case.

Health experts maintain vaccines are among the most potent tools available against the pandemic.

A vial of the Phase 3 Novavax coronavirus vaccine is seen ready for use in the trial at St. George’s University hospital in London, October 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

But the deep skepticism and often violent opposition to shots in many countries dramatically came into focus last week when Australia canceled the visa of the world’s top men’s tennis player over COVID shot requirements.

The unvaccinated, vaccine-skeptic Novak Djokovic won a legal challenge against the government on Monday, however, and is looking to defend his Australian Open title despite an outpouring of anger in the country over his exemption.

“I can imagine some people will be pretty angry about it,” said 22-year-old fan Harrison Denicolo, who felt Djokovic should be allowed to play.

In Italy, however, Prime Minister Mario Draghi urged people to get shots as new restrictions came into force Monday, barring the unvaccinated from a large number of public transport and venues such as restaurants, gyms and cinemas.

“Most of the problems we are facing today depend on the fact that there are unvaccinated people,” he said.

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