Europe now has 64 million confirmed cases and 1.3 million COVID-19 deaths, with 33 countries reporting a greater than 10% rise in 14-day case incidence that is "deeply worrying," the World Health Organization's regional director said Monday.
At a WHO news conference, WHO Europe region head Hans Kluge said countries must stay steadfast in maintaining multiple layers of protection.
The layers include vaccination and wearing masks, he said, while making a plea with the UNICEF, the UN children's agency, for schools to remain open in Europe and Asia.
"Vaccines are the path towards reopening societies and stabilizing economies.
"Despite this, we remain challenged by insufficient production, insufficient access, and insufficient vaccine acceptance," said Kluge, explaining there could be 200,000 deaths in the European region by December.
He asserted: "Vaccination is a right, but it's also a responsibility. The stagnation in vaccine uptake in our region is of serious concern."
Delta strain seen in 50 European region countries
Kluge said factors accounting for increased cases include the more transmissible Delta variant, now reported in 50 countries in the WHO's Europe Region that extends from Greenland in the northwest to the Russian Far East.
There was also the easing of public health measures and the seasonal surge in travel, driving significant growth.
"We are seeing a particularly steep increase in cases in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Central Asian Republics," said Kluge.
Nearly 850 million vaccination doses had been administered in around eight months, with almost half of the European Region's people fully vaccinated.
Kluge rued that in the past six weeks, vaccination uptake in the region has slowed down, "influenced by a lack of access to vaccines in some countries and a lack of vaccine acceptance in others."
"Even though nearly 3 in 4 health workers in our region have completed a full COVID-19 vaccine series; there are countries that have only managed to vaccinate 1 in 10 health professionals. "
"Everyone, everywhere should have the right to receive the full course, he said.
‘Catastrophic disruption of education'
Turning to schools, Kluge said the pandemic had "caused the most catastrophic disruption to education in history."
"It is therefore vital that classroom-based learning continues uninterrupted across the WHO European Region," he said.
Kluge said it would be some time before the world could put the pandemic behind it.
"But educating children safely in a physical school setting must remain our primary objective, so we don't rob them of the opportunities they so deserve," he said,
He encouraged all countries to keep schools open while urging all schools to minimize the COVID-19 risk and the spread of different variants.
Philippe Cori, the UNICEF deputy regional director for Europe and Central Asia, said: "The pandemic is not over. We all have a part to play to ensure that schools remain open across the region.
"Children and youth cannot risk having another year of disrupted learning."
At the same news conference, Zhanerke Assetova, a language teacher from Kazakhstan, spoke to support keeping schools open.
She said Kazakhstan offered the vaccine to teachers earlier this year, and that she jumped at the opportunity knowing it would be the only way she could return to in-person teaching while keeping herself and others safe.
"We must support our schools to remain open, whatever happens. And the most effective way to do this is to get vaccinated when you can."