Statement to the press by Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe
20 August 2020, Copenhagen, Denmark
Good morning and welcome after a very busy summer.
The European Region has registered 3.9 million cases corresponding to 17% of the global total, that is approaching 22 million cases. The epicentre of the pandemic is now in the Americas but other regions are also seeing a steep rise in cases.
The European Region is on a trajectory of its own, showing a different trend compared to the rest of the world. The virus hit Europe early and hard. Countries made phenomenal efforts to stop the spread by locking down schools and non-essential businesses as part of a comprehensive set of measures. And this worked: between May and July many countries managed to suppress transmission. Where policy decisions were prompt and responsive, the response was effective. But the virus has been merciless where there was partisanship, disinformation and denial.
The risk of resurgence has never been far away. In the last two months, new cases have been steadily increasing every week in the Region. There were 40,000 more cases in the first week of August, compared to the first week of June, when cases were at their lowest. Every day now the European Region reports an average of over 26,000 new COVID-19 cases. This is due in part to the relaxation of public health and social measures, where authorities have been easing some of the restrictions and people have been dropping their guard.
The good news is that we now know much more about the transmissions of this virus, and in particular how it is spread indoors in poorly ventilated settings, and especially where large numbers of people are coming together and speaking loudly or singing. The challenge is that localized outbreaks and clusters are now occurring with greater frequency, often in closed settings, such as work places and care homes, or linked to specific events, social gatherings, communities, food production and other industrial facilities and travel. Recent outbreaks among vulnerable groups such as migrants and refugees illustrate how we cannot leave anyone outside of our protective efforts. The virus increases inequalities.
As summer turns to autumn, what challenges lie ahead? We must make sure that we adopt the right public health measures to enable the safe return to school, manage the approaching influenza season, sustain our economies, and address the increased health risks to older people at this time of year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries, and our Region is no exception. Most countries in the Region closed schools at some point between February and July this year, as part of COVID-19- related public health and social measures.
The WHO European Regional Office is convening a virtual meeting for all 53 countries on re-opening of schools and COVID-19 on 31 August where concrete actions will be discussed to ensure children receive proper education in safe settings. Such options might include heightened hygiene and physical distancing in school settings for all, and the introduction of targeted measures quickly and effectively to suit local circumstances – open schools where virus levels are low; adjust school schedules and limit pupil numbers where cases are more widespread; and consider keeping schools closed temporarily in areas where community transmission is high.
I am grateful to the Minister of Health of Italy, Roberto Speranza, for being the catalyst for this initiative.
The next influenza season is also approaching fast. Now, it is critical that countries monitor flu activity and restore and reinforce routine sentinel surveillance to include both viruses, and that they promote flu vaccination for at-risk groups. This is even more important this year as we need to protect our hospitals and health workforce already coping with COVID-19, from being overwhelmed. This year, even more than previous years, we must support older people to get their flu jab early, in a safe environment.
We are not in February, we can manage the virus differently now than we did when COVID-19 first emerged.
Already in the past month, two thirds of countries in the Region have re-introduced restrictions on mass gatherings, weekend curfews and/or closure of certain non-essential businesses.
What is different is that many of these recent restrictions have been implemented locally, showing that we are learning how to apply smart, time-limited and risk-based measures, capable of reducing both the spread of COVID-19 and its impact on the wider society and economy. Today, with increased knowledge and experience we also know that some measures require nationwide and sustained implementation – including the extensive testing and isolation of all cases, and the tracing, quarantining and 14-day follow-up of contacts. With the basic nationwide and additional targeted measures – we are in a much better position to stamp out these localized virus flare ups. We can manage the virus and keep the economy running and an education system in operation.
We can save lives and livelihoods, it’s not a matter of one or the other.
Young people that they are at the forefront of the COVID-19 response and they have a powerful message to convey through their behavior and their communication.
To my daughters, to teenagers everywhere, to all of you at that exciting, adventurous point in your lives – thank you for the sacrifices you have made to protect yourselves and others from COVID-19. No youngster wants to miss a summer. But I am very concerned that more and more young people are counted among reported cases and among deaths. Low risk does not mean no risk. No one is invincible and if you do not die from Covid, it may stick with your body like a tornado with a long tail. While young people are less likely to die than older people, they can still be very seriously affected. We are now seeing many more cases of what has been described as Long COVID, whose characteristics were summarized in a recent paper in the British Medical Journal. This affects organs throughout the body, but especially the lungs and heart, with some young and fit people, including elite athletes, suffering considerably.
The youth alike everyone has to play your part to limit the opportunity for the virus to spread by:
- Wearing a mask in situations when you will be interacting with other people – to protect them from getting infected;
- Avoiding crowds and large groups – staying away from crowded bars and big parties.
- Meet outdoors rather than inside, if possible.
- Whenever meeting in smaller groups – keep at least 1 metre apart.
- Always, always, wash your hands, and
- With any sign of symptoms – stay at home and seek testing.
To repeat my key messages:
- We are not back in February, we know how to target the virus instead of targeting society. We became smarter.
- To the younger members of society: spread fun, but do not spread the virus. Protect your parents and grandparents.
- When we open society, we have to opens schools.
Watch the Statement from the Regional Director for Europe – 20 August 2020 here.