Many Eastern European countries have recently recovered from the effects of infection waves, which put severe strain on their health care systems. They also often experience some of the highest rates for pandemic deaths globally.
Public health officials predict a severe virus outbreak in the next few weeks, with omicron being confirmed across the region, and winter holidays bringing more international travel and community gatherings.
Director of the Romanian National Center for Surveillance and Control of Communicable diseases, Adriana Pistol warned Wednesday that Romania could experience a spike of 25,000 cases per day during the next wave. Romania is the European Union’s second-least vaccined member.
Pistol noted that Romanians over 65 and living with chronic illnesses are still unvaccinated. "Even though the omicron strain is not as severe, the health system will be overwhelmed anyway, reaching levels last October."
Before Christmas, huge lines formed at the borders of Romania as thousands of people flocked to their homeland from all over the world. To track infections, the government began requiring passengers to complete passenger locator forms beginning Dec. 20, but Pistol stated that many people have not filled them out.
Romania has a population of approximately 19 million people, and only 40% have been inoculated against COVID-19. Pistol said that booster doses are necessary to protect against omicron. However, he noted that only three quarters of fully jabbed people in Romania have not received an additional shot.
Romania's public health system was severely underfunded and nearly collapsed a few months ago after the country's latest epidemic of viral cases. Because of the limited space in hospital morgues for patients, some were sent abroad to receive treatment.
As omicron spread rapidly increased in high-vaccination countries like France, Italy, and the U.K., exhausted medical personnel watched in horror.
Dragos Zaharia from the Marius Nasta Institute of Pneumology, Bucharest stated that "it's very clear" that the fifth wave would hit them in January. "We hope there will be fewer deaths and more severe cases. We also hope there will be fewer hospitalizations."
Bulgaria, which is located next to the EU, has only 32% of its adult population having been given a complete vaccine. Although it also suffered from a deadly fall epidemic, its vaccine rollout has been slow. According to government data, only 255,000 booster jabs were administered in this country of 7 millions people.
Bosnia, Slovenia and Croatia, all in the Balkans, confirmed cases of omicrons. However, restrictions have not been tightened to stop the spread of the variant.
Serbian authorities have decided to allow outdoor concerts to continue on New Year's Eve. Experts opposed this move and suggested that COVID-19 status certificates be required for 24 hours because of omicron concerns.
Goran Cerkez is the assistant health minister for the largest of Bosnia's highly autonomous regions. He stated that "we are aware that a substantial number of our nationals (as well as...foreign visitors visiting our ski resorts) will return home to the European Union for holidays." "But we are optimistic that we can weather whatever lies ahead."
Czech Republic with a population of 10.7 millions is one of the hardest hit European countries by the pandemic. It currently registers around 6,000 new cases per day. On Wednesday, the Czech Republic's Health Ministry estimated that the omicron variant accounts for 10% of all new cases. This figure could rise to 25% by January 10.
Experts warn against taking comfort in preliminary studies that indicate the omicron variant may cause milder cases COVID-19.
Mircea Iliescu is a Romanian doctor in human evolution genetics at University of Cambridge. He says that although that may be true, Romania still has "a lot of people vulnerable to hospitalization."
He said that omicron is the most common strain being transmitted right now. It transmits so much faster than delta. "If other countries are moving towards it being the predominant strain, then we should be there in a few weeks."
Despite concerns about the variant, Romanian authorities relaxed some internal restrictions in December and now allow businesses to remain open until midnight on New Year's Eve.
Andrei Otelea (31), a British national who is not vaccinated against COVID-19 arrived in Romania with his family on Tuesday. This was their first return home since the pandemic.
Otelea stated that although we are slightly scared of visiting grandparents, she said that they will keep their distance.