With a peak yet to come, healthcare in Europe is groaning under the rapid spread of Omicron

By Clara-Laeila Laudette and Alistair Smout

MADRID/LONDON (Reuters) – European healthcare systems are again strained by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus over the holiday period, with large numbers of key staff sick or self-isolating and experts predicting the peak of infections is yet to come.

Despite early studies showing a lower risk of serious illness or hospitalization from Omicron compared to the previously dominant Delta variant, healthcare networks across Spain, Britain, Italy and the beyond found themselves in increasingly desperate circumstances.

Britain put its biggest private health companies on high alert on Monday to provide key treatments, including cancer surgery, if unsustainable levels of hospitalizations or staff absences overwhelmed hospitals in the National Health Service (NHS) in England.

On Friday, the country also began deploying military personnel to support hospitals due to record COVID-19 cases.

“Omicron means more patients to treat and fewer staff to treat them,” NHS medical director Professor Stephen Powis said in a statement.

In the US, hospitals are postponing elective surgeries to free up staff and beds, while Spain’s primary healthcare network is so strained that on the penultimate day of 2021 authorities in the northeast region of Aragon authorized the reincorporation of retired medical workers and nurses.

“The exponential increase in cases means that primary care cannot adequately carry out its contact tracing and vaccination campaign tasks, nor its regular activities,” authorities said in a statement.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Monday it might be time to use different metrics to track the pandemic, confirming a report by El Pais newspaper.

El Pais said the government was considering methods similar to those used to track the flu, without such widespread testing and recording of cases.


Frontline workers such as nurses and physiotherapists are the hardest hit, Spanish nursing union SATSE said in a statement, noting that in Andalusia they made up more than 30% of staff on COVID-related leave in the region. second half of December.

The sunny southern region recorded around 1,000 workers infected with the coronavirus in the last weeks of the year, “creating serious service coverage problems”, the statement said.

In the Netherlands, infection rates are also rising sharply among hospital staff, especially nurses and caregivers, Dutch daily De Telegraaf reported on Friday, following a survey of eight major hospitals. .

In the worst-case scenario, one in four have tested positive in the run-up to Christmas, such as at the University Medical Center in Amsterdam where 25% of staff have now tested positive, up from 5% a week ago.

Dutch hospitals are considering changing their quarantine rules so that infected staff who do not show symptoms can come to work, De Telegraaf said, as the number of Dutch daily cases hits records despite a strict lockdown since December 19.

In Italy, the problem of infected health workers – more than 12,800 according to data collected last week – is compounded by the suspension of doctors, nurses and administrative staff who are not vaccinated and represent just over 4% of the total workforce.


In a last-ditch attempt to fill service gaps, Italian health agencies are freezing or postponing staff vacations, and freezing or postponing scheduled surgeries not classified as “urgent”.

Hospitalizations in Britain are already at their highest level since last February and the NHS is set to face even more pressure as COVID-19 increases among the elderly.

“We are still seeing an increase in hospitalizations, especially with the increase in the rate of cases in older age groups. This is concerning,” British Health Minister Sajid Javid said on Friday. “When we look at the NHS, it will be a tough few weeks ahead.”

On average, about 80,000 medical staff were absent from work every day of the week until January 2 – the most recent period for which data is available – a 13% increase from the previous week, according to NHS England. Almost half of those absences, or 44%, were due to COVID-19, an increase of more than a fifth from the previous week.

Rafael Bengoa, co-founder of the Institute for Health and Strategy in Bilbao and a former senior WHO official, said Spain had failed to take sufficient steps to strengthen vital services and that pressure would continue to increase.

“Spain has several weeks – practically the whole of January – of cases on the rise … then hopefully we will reach a plateau which will come down just as quickly,” he told Reuters.

He considers it unlikely that a more infectious variant that is also deadlier than Omicron will emerge and is optimistic that the current wave could signal the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

“Pandemics don’t end with a huge boom but with small waves because so many people have been infected or vaccinated… After Omicron, we shouldn’t worry about anything more than small waves.”

(Reporting by Clara-Laeila Laudette, Nathan Allen and Inti Landauro in Madrid, Alistair Smout in London, Emilio Parodi in Milan; additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in Amsterdam; writing by Clara-Laeila Laudette; editing by Kirsten Donovan)

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