As Europe lifts COVID rules, Omicron cases down in South America

EFE/EPA/Johan Nilsson

Sweden eliminated as of Wednesday all COVID-19 restrictions due to the high percentage of the vaccinated population, and less dangerous nature of the Omicron variant. Sweden joins Denmark, the first country in the European Union (EU), to lift all restrictions as of February 1, as the government no longer considers COVID-19 to be a “critical” disease for society, despite the Nordic nation registering 18,182 additional cases on Wednesday.

Measures include the opening of bars and restaurants after11pm and elimination of capacity limits for public events. The government maintains its recommendation to work from home, to reduce indoor contact and use a face mask on public transport, which in Sweden has never been mandated. Travelers from the European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA), will be able to freely enter Sweden without having to present a coronavirus test. Sweden reached a vaccine coverage with 83% of its population fully vaccinated, and 53% having received a booster dose.

The Czech Republic also moved to ease restrictions this week allowing hotels and restaurants to welcome guests without proof of COVID-19 vaccine certificate. Proof of vaccination was introduced nine months ago, but many establishments did not enforce the measure. Despite the still high daily cases of infection, with 34,060 registered over the last 24 hours, the Central European country plans in February to continue eliminating other restrictions.

Companies are still obligated to carry out two weekly antigen tests on all employees, although this will end on February 19. The same obligation concerns primary and secondary schools, both for students and teachers, although only once a week. The government has announced that PCR testing will be eliminated in all places, except outpatient clinics and hospitals, nursing homes and social services for the sick. Mask wearing remains obligatory in closed spaces, including public transport. “From March 1, only very few restrictive measures will be in force, practically only the wearing of masks,” stated Conservative Prime Minister Petr Fiala.

Spain is the latest country to lift the mandatory use of face masks outdoors. The Spanish government imposed obligatory mask-wearing back in May 2020 and all persons will still be required to wear them indoors and in large public gatherings, including sport events, where social distancing is not possible.

The decision by many European nations to ease COVID-19 restrictions is being accompanied in the U.S., with almost a dozen states, among them New York, Illinois, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island, lifting mask mandates in public and indoor spaces. The suspension by certain states of indoor mask-or-vaccine mandates has not been welcomed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) at a time in which the U.S is recording more than 270,000 new coronavirus cases each day.

CDC chief Rochelle Walensky emphasized in an interview with Reuters that: “Now, is not the moment (…) our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high.” The CDC maintains 134 countries (almost half the world) on its Level 4 “Do-not-travel” advisory – including Colombia, Canada, Israel and Japan. It also warned citizens to “avoid cruise travel at this time.”

In South America where Omicron has been decelerating, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) confirmed that daily cases are down 31% in the last week, yet hospitalizations and deaths continue to increase in Bolivia and Venezuela. PAHO noted that in the three North American countries – Canada, Mexico, United States – both infections, hospitalizations and deaths are already on a downward trend. Regarding Central America, the agency indicated that deaths increased by 30%, but added that infections have decreased significantly with a drop of 70% in El Salvador, and 30% in Belize and Panama.

The key to ending the pandemic in the region noted PAHO director Carissa Etienne “is vaccine accessibility, and maintaining high immunization.” Last week PAHO warned that more than half of the population of the countries with the lowest incomes in the American continent still have not been vaccinated, or 54% of populations in these countries that have not yet received a single dose.