WHO warns European soccer tournament crowds driving increased COVID-19 infections

WHO warns European soccer tournament crowds driving increased COVID-19 infections
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Coronavirus cases increased across Europe for the first time in 10 weeks, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday, and at least some of it has been driven by crowds gathering to watch the European Championship soccer tournament.

The number of new cases rose 10 percent in the past week across the 53 countries that make up the WHO's European region, Hans Kluge, regional director for Europe, told reporters.

Kluge said the increase was driven by increased mixing, travel and gatherings occurring while the highly contagious delta variant spreads rapidly. 

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Catherine Smallwood, WHO’s senior emergency officer, said the concern is broader than stadiums full of spectators.

"How are people getting there? Are they traveling in large, crowded convoys of buses? What's happening after the games when they leave the stadiums, are they going into crowded bars and pubs to watch the matches?” Smallwood said.

Smallwood pointed to Scotland, where nearly 2,000 people tested positive after attending a Euro 2020 event. Nearly 1,300 of those people had traveled to London to watch a match, and 397 of them were in Wembley Stadium for the England vs. Scotland match on June 18.  

Scotland was only allocated 2,600 tickets because of virus concerns, but officials said they suspect tens of thousands of fans traveled to London regardless.

"If this mixing is happening among people who are not fully vaccinated and there is the presence of the virus, there will be cases. This is not unexpected," Smallwood said. 

She added that even though the tournament is concerning, it's the less visible, much smaller events happening constantly throughout the world that are driving the spread.

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The delta variant is expected to become the dominant coronavirus strain throughout Europe by August, by which time restrictions will be lifted across much of the continent. Kluge said 63 percent of people in the European region are still waiting for a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Vaccination rates are higher in Britain than the rest of Europe, which is helping keep deaths down despite rising cases. Nearly half of Britain’s population is fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data.

British officials are allowing 60,000 fans to attend each of the tournament’s three final games in London next week.