WHO warns of rising COVID-19 deaths – CIDRAP

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) today said the group is tracking a worrying rise in deaths in most of the world’s regions, urging countries not to give up in the battle against the more transmissible Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant.

In another development, the WHO today called attention to the burden COVID-19 medical waste is putting on health systems and suggested ways to safely and sustainably reduce and manage healthcare waste.

Circulation still intense, raising fatalities

At a briefing today, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said since Omicron was first detected 10 weeks ago, nearly 90 million more COVID-19 cases have been reported to the WHO, more than the total for 2020.

In the wake of the avalanche of cases, officials are now tracking a very worrying rise in deaths, he said. “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. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

After today’s briefing, Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said on Twitter that last week more than 63,337 people died from COVID-19. And though some may be ready to move on from the pandemic, those who have died and the families they left behind cannot, she added.

“I know everyone wants to get back to ‘normal,’ but this level of intense circulation and death is not ‘normal.’ It’s not a global situation that should be accepted nor tolerated when we have the tools to change the course of this pandemic,” she said.

Tedros said the WHO isn’t calling for more lockdowns but it is urging countries to use all the measures they have to protect their populations without relying on vaccines alone.

When asked about countries easing restrictions against the backdrop of ongoing surges, Mike Ryan, MD, who heads the WHO’s health emergencies program, said every country is in a different situation. “You can look to the experience of others, but please don’t just follow blindly what other countries are doing.”

Tedros said the virus is dangerous and changing before the world’s eyes and that the WHO is tracking four Omicron sublineages, including the Omicron BA.2 subvariant. He called on countries to step up their testing, surveillance, and sequencing. “We can’t fight this virus if we don’t know what it’s doing.”

More global headlines

  • Medical waste generated by the COVID-19 pandemic response is straining medical waste systems and posing threats to human and environmental health, the WHO said today in a new report. Much of the 87,000 tons of personal protective equipment (PPE) shipped to countries by United Nations agencies has likely ended up as waste, with test kits potentially contributing 2,600 tons of noninfectious waste. Authors of the report made several recommendations, including using eco-friendly packaging and shipping and including reusable or recyclable PPE.
  • The world has reached the milestone of putting 10 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses into people’s arms in a little over a year, Nature reported yesterday. However, stark inequities remain, with only 5.5% of people in low-income countries having received two doses.
  • Denmark has now lifted all of its COVID-19 restrictions, including face masks in public places and on transport. The country is still experiencing a COVID-19 surge with the BA.2 Omicron subvariant now dominant; however, more than 80% of the eligible population is vaccinated. Similarly, Norway today announced that it was ending most of its restrictions, saying that its spike in infections doesn’t appear likely to stretch its health systems. The country also has high vaccine uptake, with about half having received a booster dose.
  • The global total today rose to 380,432,276 million cases, along with 5,681,061 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.