Citizens of Bulgaria and Romania – the least vaccinated countries in the European Union – are preparing for the next wave of COVID-19 as the Omicron variant quickly spreads across the continent.
Health experts across Eastern Europe fear holiday gatherings will only worsen the situation, with officials in both Romania and Bulgaria saying they expect big spikes in the new year.
Bulgaria is the least vaccinated country in the EU with 27 nations, only about 32 percent received two doses and even fewer a booster. Mariya Sharkova, a Plovdiv-based public health law specialist, told the Associated Press the country can expect a fifth wave by early next year.
“Epidemiologists predict that the fifth wave will hit Bulgaria in late January and probably harder in February,” Sharkova said. “Holidays will bring Omicron to Bulgaria and likely have a negative impact on the spread of COVID-19.”
Romania is the second least vaccinated EU country, with around 40 percent of the population receiving two doses. About 75 percent of the vaccinated population have not yet received a booster vaccination, according to Adriana Pistol, director of the Romanian National Center for Communicable Disease Surveillance and Control.
Pistol warned that Romania could see up to 25,000 cases per day during the upcoming fifth wave, as around 60 percent of Romanians who have chronic diseases or are over 65 years of age are not vaccinated.
“Even if the Omicron strain doesn’t have the same severity (,) … the healthcare system will be overloaded anyway, reaching record levels this October,” said Pistol.
Romania saw huge lines at the borders before Christmas when hundreds of thousands of citizens flocked home, many from the west. The government began urging travelers on December 20 to fill out passenger search forms to track infections, but Pistol said many failed to fill them out.
Romania’s underfunded public health system was on the verge of collapse a few months ago during the most recent explosion of virus cases in the country. Hospital morgues ran out of space for bodies and some patients were moved abroad for treatment because the COVID-19 intensive care units were full.
Exhausted medical staff watched in horror as countries with high vaccination rates like France, Italy and the UK reported record cases as Omicron spread in recent days.
“It is very clear that the fifth wave will likely hit us in January,” said Dragos Zaharia, general practitioner at the Marius Nasta Institute of Pneumology in Bucharest. “We just hope there will be fewer deaths, fewer severe cases, and fewer hospital admissions.”
In the Balkans region of Europe, Bosnia, Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia have all confirmed Omicron cases, but so far have not tightened the restrictions on controlling the spread of the variant.
The Serbian authorities decided this week to allow planned open-air concerts on New Year’s Eve. Experts rejected the move, demanding Omicron request a 24-hour COVID-19 status ID due to concerns.
“We recognize that a significant number of our nationals will be returning home for vacation from the European Union, as well as … foreign guests visiting our ski resorts,” said Goran Cerkez, deputy health minister in the larger of the two autonomous regions . “But we hope that we will survive what lies ahead.”
With 10.7 million inhabitants, the Czech Republic is one of the European countries hardest hit by the pandemic and is currently registering around 6,000 new cases every day. The country’s health ministry estimated Wednesday that the Omicron variant currently accounts for around 10 percent of all new cases and could be 25 percent by January 10.
Some experts warn to take comfort in preliminary studies that suggest the Omicron variant causes milder cases of COVID-19.
Mircea Iliescu, a Romanian human evolutionary genetics doctor at Cambridge University, says that even if it does, Romania still “has many people who are susceptible to hospitalization”.
“We can only assume that many of the cases that are broadcasting now are Omicron because it is transmitting so fast compared to Delta,” he said. “If other countries are working now to make it the majority burden, we should get there in a couple of weeks.”
Despite concerns about the variant, Romanian authorities relaxed some internal restrictions in early December, allowing companies to stay open all night on New Year’s Eve.
Andrei Otelea, 31, who lives in the UK and is not vaccinated against COVID-19, arrived at Sibiu International Airport in central Romania with his young family on Tuesday and returned home for the first time since the pandemic began.
“We’re a little scared (of the grandparents’ visit), but we’ll go and keep our distance for the moment,” said Otelea.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.