LONDON (AP) -- The World Health Organization said Tuesday that coronavirus cases have tripled across Europe in the past six weeks, accounting for nearly half of all infections globally. Hospitalization rates have also doubled, although intensive care admissions have remained low.
In a statement on Tuesday, WHO's Europe director Dr. Hans Kluge described COVID-19 as "a nasty and potentially deadly illness" that people should not underestimate. He said super-infectious relatives of the omicron variant were driving new waves of disease across the continent and that repeat infections could potentially lead to long COVID.
"With rising cases we're also seeing a rise in hospitalizations, which are only set to increase further in the autumn and winter months," Kluge said. "This forecast presents a huge challenge to the health workforce in country after country, already under enormous pressure dealing with unrelenting crises since 2020."
Earlier this week, editors of two British medical journals said that at no other time in the country's National Health Service have so many parts of it been so close to collapse.
Kamran Abbasi, of the BMJ and Alastair McLellan of the Health Service Journal wrote in a joint editorial that the U.K. government was failing to address persistent problems worsened by COVID, including the queuing of ambulances outside hospitals too overloaded to accept new patients.
They slammed the government's insistence that vaccines have broken the link between infections and hospitalizations. Although vaccines dramatically reduce the chances of severe disease and death, they have not made a significant dent on transmission.
"The government must stop gaslighting the public and be honest about the threat the pandemic still poses to them and the National Health Service," the editors wrote.
In WHO's autumn strategy for COVID-19 released on Tuesday, the U.N. health agency called for measures including a second booster dose for anyone with weak immune systems aged 5 and over, promoting mask-wearing indoors and on public transportation and better ventilation in places including schools and offices.
He said southern hemisphere countries were currently experiencing a very active flu season that combined with COVID, was straining health systems.
"We are likely to see a similar scenario in the northern hemisphere," Kluge said, warning that increased pressure could lead to business, travel and school chaos.
He urged people to make their own decisions, even in countries where authorities have largely abandoned coronavirus restrictions.
"We're all aware of the tools we have to keep ourselves safe, assess our level of risk and take the necessary steps to protect others if we get infected," Kluge said. "Just because a mask isn't mandated doesn't mean it's prohibited."