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As Europe lifts pandemic restrictions, WHO urges caution

With the omicron wave peaking in parts of Europe, many countries are lifting pandemic restrictions and letting life return to normal. But the World Health Organization is worried about nations opening up prematurely as leaders bow to political pressure.

(CN) — Denmark on Tuesday declared the coronavirus no longer a major risk and lifted all restrictions, a move that will likely be followed by other European countries as health officials say the omicron wave has peaked.

But the World Health Organization on Tuesday cautioned against a speedy lifting of preventive measures such as mask mandates, especially in those countries where vaccination rates are lower and health systems are less equipped to handle a surge of severe infections.

“We're concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines and because of omicron's high transmissibility and lower severity, preventing transmission is no longer possible and no longer necessary,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general, at a weekly briefing on the pandemic at the agency's Geneva headquarters.

Tedros pointed to a sharp increase in Covid-19 deaths around the globe in recent weeks as evidence that infection from the omicron variant can be very dangerous, especially for people who are unvaccinated or vulnerable.

“We're now starting to see a very worrying increase in deaths in most regions of the world,” he said. “More transmission means more deaths.”

Since being identified in November, the highly transmissible but less severe omicron variant has spread quickly around the world and caused an extraordinary number of new infections. More new cases were detected in the past 10 weeks – nearly 90 million – than in the whole of 2020, Tedros said.

While the omicron wave has not caused the kind of death tolls that previous waves did, it is driving a rise in deaths.

Our World in Data, a University of Oxford research project, shows Covid-19 deaths globally have risen since Jan. 5 when about 6,100 deaths were recorded in a single day to about 9,545 on Monday.

Globally, Johns Hopkins University figures show that nearly 5.7 million deaths have been linked to the virus, though the actual death toll is likely two or three times higher, according to scientists. About 379 million coronavirus cases have been reported since the start of the pandemic.

But after nearly two years of lockdowns, restrictions and vaccination drives, pressure is building on political leaders to reopen societies and get economies going again. With the omicron variant proving to be less severe, European nations are doing just that despite record numbers of new infections.

Starting at midnight Monday, restrictions were lifted in Denmark after health officials there said the virus no longer could be considered a “socially critical disease” because the omicron peak appeared to be over.

On Tuesday, nightclubs, restaurants and bars resumed normal hours and masks and health passes were no longer needed.

“We are ready to step out of the shadow of the coronavirus. We say 'goodbye' to restrictions and 'welcome' to the life we knew before,” said Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, as reported by Deutsche Welle, a German news agency.

Still, the Danish prime minister said risks remain.

“I dare not say that it is a final goodbye to restrictions,” Frederiksen said on "Go ‘Morgen P3," a Danish radio program, as reported by the Copenhagen Post. “We do not know what will happen between now and the autumn: a new variant might come along.”

Restrictions are easing elsewhere too. The United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Norway and Austria all are easing or have lifted many rules to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But Tedros said the increase in deaths globally should make countries pause before throwing open their societies.

“We're not calling for any country to return to so-called lockdown, but we're calling on all countries to protect their people using every tool in the toolkit, not vaccines alone.”

He added: “It's premature for any country either to surrender or to declare victory. This virus is dangerous and it continues to evolve before our very eyes.”

Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO emergencies chief, said each country must assess their epidemiological situation and that it may be safe for countries like Denmark, where vaccination rates are high and the hospital system is good, to lift restrictions.

But he worried that other countries that aren't ready to reopen will do so anyway under political pressure.

“My greatest fear at the moment is that countries have a lemming syndrome,” he said, referring to a term used to describe crowd behavior. “They all chase to open up and they open up on the basis that the country next door opened up. And the problem is they don't have the same situation. They don't have the same vaccine coverage, they don't have a strong health system.”

He added: “That political pressure will result in people in some countries opening prematurely and that will result in unnecessary transmission, unnecessary severe disease and unnecessary death.”

Tedros said the world must continue to do all it can to roll out vaccines to the majority of people around the world. The United Nations health agency has set a goal of getting 70% of the world's population inoculated by the middle of this year.

“As you know, everybody is sick and tired” of the pandemic, Tedros said. “The world cannot stay this way any longer and we have to end it and we have the means to end it.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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