Los Angeles Times

Omicron adds to pandemic-weary Europe’s misery

Variant’s presence and new Delta infections dash hopes for festive holiday celebratio­ns.

- By Monique El-Faizy and Laura King

PARIS — Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly two years ago, Europe has notched up plenty of unhappy distinctio­ns.

The continent saw the world’s first massive wave of fatalities in the early months of the coronaviru­s outbreak. Despite a membership that includes some of the world’s most advanced democracie­s, the European Union got off to a slow start on vaccine rollouts this year.

And a hard core of vaccine resistance, often tied to far-right populism, helped set the stage for a virulent fourth wave of infections now raging across Europe, triggering stringent lockdowns whose likes hadn’t been seen for months.

Now comes the Omicron variant, and Europe again finds itself in the coronaviru­s crosshairs.

Greece is making vaccines mandatory for people over age 60. A woman who fled a Dutch quarantine hotel was arrested as she and her partner tried to hop a

flight to Spain. A man pinpointed as having Italy’s first known case of Omicron had infected five family members by the time his illness was detected.

As the variant hopscotche­s the globe, disproport­ionate numbers of European countries — more than a dozen in all, from Sweden and Denmark in the north to Spain and Italy in the south — have acknowledg­ed finding Omicron within their borders. Those countries with reported cases include Europe’s biggest economies: Germany, Britain and France.

And it turns out Omicron isn’t exactly a newcomer. The Netherland­s said Tuesday that it had confirmed the presence of the variant in Dutch test samples taken as early as Nov. 19 — well before South Africa first announced its detection last week. Experts believe it is already in wide circulatio­n internatio­nally.

All this has contribute­d to an enveloping sense of gloom and frustratio­n across the continent as financial markets shudder, politician­s ponder unpopular restrictiv­e measures, and hopes for a robust return of festive year-end holiday celebratio­ns are dashed.

In a babel of tongues, ordinary Europeans vented their pandemic fatigue.

“We seem to have gone back two years,” said Benoit Dalenne, a 45-year-old Frenchman who lives near the northern city of Lille. “We are feeling blue — as though everything we have done was not of much use.”

“People are in a bad mood,” said furloughed flight attendant Ana Maria Brito, who has been volunteeri­ng at a Berlin vaccinatio­n center. She said security personnel at the center routinely intercede in shouting matches and belligeren­t outbursts, usually sparked by vaccine-hesitant individual­s angry over feeling pressured to get inoculated.

Near Rome’s Baroque Trevi Fountain, newsstand proprietor Maria Adele

Chenet, 75, wasn’t sure she could withstand more setbacks.

“Another lockdown means I’d close down for good,” she said.

A few sought to find some semblance of levity amid the general despondenc­y. In France, internet wags noted the resemblanc­e between the variant’s name and that of President Emmanuel Macron, with some reporting that autocorrec­t functions resulted in virus-related developmen­ts being rendered as “Oh Macron.”

Even before Omicron’s unwelcome arrival, countries across Europe had been reviving former pandemic-fighting measures, pages torn from a tattered playbook.

England reimposed mandatory face covering in stores and on public transit, and a rule took effect Tuesday requiring travelers arriving in Britain to be tested for the coronaviru­s and selfisolat­e until they have a negative result.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new measures were intended to buy time to ramp up efforts against the variant, including an expansion of Britain’s booster program.

Some government­s have put an emphasis on trying to fence out the variant — a strategy many experts believe will have only limited effectiven­ess in the face of Omicron’s already existing footholds.

Switzerlan­d announced that beginning Wednesday, travelers arriving from Canada, Japan, Portugal and Niger — all nations where Omicron cases have popped up — will need to quarantine for 10 days, even after presenting a negative COVID-19 test. Swiss authoritie­s, like many government­s across Europe, had already banned flights from seven countries in southern Africa.

Part of the dread over Omicron is that so little is known about it — its ability to evade vaccine defenses, its degree of transmissi­bility,

and how severe is the illness it causes.

“It’s going to take another two or three weeks to see how it develops, and understand it,” Christian Drosten, a leading German virologist and government advisor, told ZDF television. “We can’t say at all how it will impact us.”

In much of Europe, ongoing havoc from the Delta variant — which is highly contagious and especially dangerous for the unvaccinat­ed — is still very much at the forefront, stressing healthcare systems and generating caseloads comparable with the pandemic’s dark early days.

“We must not mistake the enemy — for the moment it is the Delta variant,” Arnaud Fontanet, a French epidemiolo­gist and member of an advisory board for the government, said on France Inter radio. “Let’s focus on our first fight; we’ll keep Omicron for later.”

Olivier Veran, France’s health minister, told lawmakers

Tuesday that new infections over the last 24 hours had reached 47,000 — the highest one-day tally since April, when the pandemic was raging.

Meanwhile, Germany’s COVID-19 death toll this week passed a bleak threshold of 100,000. A success story early in the outbreak, the country is in the midst of a frightenin­g surge in new infections and hospitaliz­ations, even before Omicron has had a chance to take hold.

Germany’s worsening coronaviru­s picture has prompted stricter public health measures, with even tighter ones being contemplat­ed. People now need to have proof of vaccinatio­n or recovery from the virus, or a negative test, to access public transport, shops, restaurant­s, bars and clubs. Even traditiona­l Christmas markets are curtailed for the second winter in a row.

“We’ve got to pull the emergency brake now,” Helge Braun, the chief of staff to outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, said in a newspaper interview. “We’ve reached a situation in Germany that we were always trying to prevent — our healthcare system has become overwhelme­d in some regions.”

Record infection rates are also afflicting the Netherland­s, and health authoritie­s are struggling to find enough room in intensive care wards for COVID patients. The country is less than a week into an emergency regimen that has included stores, bars and restaurant­s closing down for the night at 5 p.m. and people being told to work from home.

Italy, among the hardesthit countries when the pandemic began, has fared a little better. Its vaccine “passport” — the so-called Green Pass, introduced over the summer for restaurant­s, cinemas, museums and sporting events and extended to the workplace in October — is credited with helping stem infections in recent months, although contagion is again rising.

In Britain, which rolled out a booster expansion program with some fanfare this week — everyone over age 18 is now eligible — health authoritie­s acknowledg­ed that Omicron’s emergence echoed a familiar pandemic pattern: Much-touted progress can be swiftly undercut by events.

“Just as the vaccinatio­n program has shifted the odds in our favor, a worrying new variant has always had the opportunit­y to shift them back,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons on Monday. “In this race between the vaccines and the virus, the new variant may have given the virus extra legs.”

 ?? Jean-Francois Badias Associated Press ?? EUROPEAN countries have revived pandemic measures. Above, a European Union lawmaker in France.
Jean-Francois Badias Associated Press EUROPEAN countries have revived pandemic measures. Above, a European Union lawmaker in France.
 ?? Jean-Francois Badias Associated Press ?? A WOMAN takes a coronaviru­s test in Strasbourg, France, last week. France, Britain and Germany are among the countries in Europe that have reported finding Omicron variant cases within their borders.
Jean-Francois Badias Associated Press A WOMAN takes a coronaviru­s test in Strasbourg, France, last week. France, Britain and Germany are among the countries in Europe that have reported finding Omicron variant cases within their borders.

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