COVID-19 cases pass 8.5 million; WHO warns of dangerous phase

As cases topped 8.5 million today, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) today warned that the pandemic is entering a dangerous phase, with people tired of staying home and countries eager to reopen economies, but with COVID-19 activity still spreading fast and much of the world's population still susceptible.

The global total rose to 8,566,787 cases, and 457,362 people have died from their infections, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

Daily high of 150,000 cases reported

At a media briefing today, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said countries reported more than 150,000 cases to the WHO yesterday, the most in a single day. He said almost half were reported from the Americas, but South Asia and the Middle East also reporting large numbers.

He said people are understandably fed up with stay-at-home orders and countries are understandably eager to get society and economies moving again. "But the virus is still spreading fast, it's still deadly, and most people are still susceptible," Tedros said. "We call on all countries and all people to exercise extreme vigilance."

The WHO urges people to continue distancing measures, to stay home when sick, to observe cough and hand hygiene, and wear masks when appropriate. "We continue to call on all countries to focus on the basics: find, isolate, test and care for every case. Trace and quarantine every contact," Tedros said.

Vulnerable refugees, migrants

As virus activity picks up pace, vulnerable people suffer most, and ahead of the World Migrant Day observance tomorrow, Tedros said refugees are at risk owing to limited access to adequate shelter, water, nutrition, sanitation, and health services. He said 80% of the world's refugees live in low- and middle-income countries. He added that the WHO is deeply concerned about the COVID-19 threat to crowded refugee camps and about the severe economic hardships in the wake of the pandemic.

He referenced a new report from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement that shows 70% of Turkey's refugees have lost their jobs since the pandemic began.

Health officials from the United Nations, Lebanon, and Ethiopia described the impact and threat to refugees at today's briefing. Filippo Grandi, United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said the number of refugees has doubled over the past decade, many of them exiled in their own countries, and more than 40% are children.

Fortunately, health officials so far haven't seen major outbreaks that were feared in refugee camps. Countries like Bangladesh had time to prepare, and Grandi credited the WHO's guidance and leadership. He said, however, that migrant populations have been hit hard in countries such as Venezuela, where 4 million people are on the move. He reiterated worries about the impact on livelihoods in parts of the world where people depend on the informal economy to earn their livings.

Grandi urged countries to include displaced people in their national health responses, which he says most countries have done. He noted that another challenge is to include those vulnerable groups in social and economic responses to the pandemic.

Cases surge in India, Brazil

India today reported a daily record of 13,500 cases, and the country's total is now four times higher than China's, which has a similar population, Reuters reported. India's total now stands at about 380,500 cases, the world's fourth highest, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

The country's hot spots are in some of its biggest cities, with new outbreaks in Chennai triggering a lockdown in the city.

Brazil, the world's second hardest-hit country after the United States, will soon reach 1 million cases and today so far has reported about 26,000 cases. At today's briefing, Mike Ryan, MD, who leads the WHO's health emergencies program, said the situation across Brazil varies, and though some hospital intensive care units are under pressure, so far the health system continues to cope. "It's difficult for any system to sustain continued pressure," he added.

Healthcare workers make up more than 12% of Brazil's cases, he noted, praising their courage in the face of the grave conditions they face.

Most of Europe stable, but some areas of concern

At a briefing yesterday, Henri Kluge, MD, MPH, who directs the WHO's European regional office, provided a snapshot of the continent's COVID-19 status, in which, after a decline, cases have stabilized at about 17,000 to 20,000 a day.

Levels are trending higher in some areas, though, including North Macedonia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Israel. He said the number of countries reporting increased incidence over the past month has more than tripled, from 6 to 21.

School openings in some countries have led to local flares, serving as a warning that the virus is still there, Kluge said.

According to other reports, the Czech Republic today reported its biggest 1-day jump in 2 months, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal today warned that the country was experiencing a second wave of infections, with about 1,000 new cases, UNIAN News Agency reported.

In other European developments:

  • Italian sewage samples from the northern part of the country suggest the virus was there in December before China reported its first cases, Reuters reported.
  • The United Kingdom has lowered its COVID alert from exponential to epidemic, according a statement from the Department of Health and Social Care.

Beijing outbreak grows, tied to European strain

In Beijing's outbreak, linked to a large food wholesale market, 25 more cases were reported, according to a daily update from the country's National Health Commission. So far, 183 cases have been reported, plus other related cases in four other provinces, including Hebei, with 2 new cases today, and Liaoning, with 1 new case.

In a related development, China shared genetic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 from Beijing's outbreak with public databases and also shared the results with the WHO. It said the preliminary analysis revealed that the virus is a European strain, Reuters reported.

At today's WHO media briefing, Ryan said the findings probably suggest the virus came from outside of Beijing and likely reflects human-to-human spread and not a new introduction from animals. The market ties to the outbreak, where contamination has been found, raised worries of an animal or foodborne source, which health officials have said is unlikely.

Ryan said it's important to use the findings to establish the transmission chain, adding that the outbreak at the market shows how dangerous a COVID-19 cluster can be in a closed environment.

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