Nov. 24 (UPI) — The World Health Organization is warning the death toll to COVID-19 in Europe could explode by more than 700,000 this winter as the pandemic continues to deepen in the region.
According to European Center for Disease Prevention and Control data, more than 1.46 million people in Europe have died from the pandemic, but the WHO’s Regional Office for Europe said in a statement Tuesday that based on current trends it expects that number to reach 2.2 million by next spring.
Europe, the office said, “remains firmly in the grip of COVID-19.”
The office predicted the spiking toll as deaths for the 53-nation region this week were 4,200 a day, double that recorded in September.
“Today, COVID-19 is the number one cause of death across Europe and Central Asia,” it said, adding that it expects between now and March 1 for hospital beds in 25 countries to be under high or extreme stress and intensive care units in 49 of 53 countries to be under the same pressure.
The WHO said the current outbreak is being fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus, governments indicating to their population that COVID-19 is no longer an emergency by easing pandemic mitigating measures and large numbers of people still not vaccinated.
According to WHO data, 53.5% of eligible residents in the European region have completed their vaccine regiment, but that is an average of all countries, some of which boast an 80% inoculation rate while others are under 10%.
The WHO is urging Europeans who have yet to receive the life-saving jab to do so or risk returning to lockdown measures experienced last year.
Austria, which has a fully vaccinated rate of 65%, returned to lockdown on Monday in an effort to stymie its recent outbreak.
“In order to live with this virus and continue our daily lives, we need to take a ‘vaccine plus’ approach,” said Dr. Hans Henri Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe. “This means getting the standard doses of vaccine, taking a booster if offered as well as incorporating preventative measures into our normal routines.”
Wearing masks, washing hands, ventilating indoor spaces and physical distancing are measures the WHO said it is urging people to maintain as Europe heads into the winter months during which people will be indoors from the cold and where the virus can easily spread.
“We have a challenging winter ahead,” Kluge said, “but we should not be without hope, because all of us — governments, health authorities, individuals — can take decisive action to stabilize the pandemic,” Kluge said.