THE HAGUE, Netherlands
Santa Claus will not receive his traditional welcome in the Dutch city of Utrecht this year. The ceremonial chief of the carnival celebrations in Cologne, Germany had to bow out because he tested positive for COVID-19. And Austria plans to impose lockdown on unvaccinated people.
Almost two years after the start of a global health crisis that killed more than 5 million people, infections are spreading again in parts of western Europe, a region with relatively high vaccination rates and good health systems but where lockdowns are largely a thing of the past.
The World Health Organization said coronavirus deaths rose 10% in Europe last week, and an agency official said last week that the continent was “back to the epicenter of the pandemic “. Much of this is due to outbreaks in Russia and Eastern Europe – where vaccination rates tend to be low – but Western countries like Germany and Britain have recorded some of the numbers. highest new cases in the world.
While Western European countries all have vaccination rates above 60% – and some like Portugal and Spain are much higher – this still leaves a significant portion of their populations unprotected.
Dr Bharat Pankhania, clinical lecturer at Exeter University College of Medicine and Health, said the large numbers of unvaccinated people combined with a widespread resumption of socialization after the lockdown and a slight drop in immunity for people who got vaccinated months ago is speeding up the rate of infections.
Thanks in large part to vaccination, hospitals in Western Europe are not under the same pressure as at the start of the pandemic, but many are still struggling to manage the growing number of COVID patients while trying to clear the backlog of tests and surgeries with exhausted or sick staff. Even countries with the region’s most severe epidemics have seen far fewer deaths per person in the past four weeks than the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The question now is whether countries can curb this latest recovery without resorting to tough shutdowns that have devastated economies, disrupted education and weighed on mental health. Experts probably say – but authorities can’t avoid all restrictions and must increase vaccination rates.
“I think the era of locking people in their homes is over because we now have tools to control COVID – tests, vaccines and therapies,” said Devi Sridhar, president of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. “So I hope people will do the things they have to do, like put on a mask.”
Many European countries are now using COVID passes – proof of full vaccination, recovery from the virus or a negative test result – to access places like bars and restaurants. Pankhania warned that passes can give a false sense of security, as fully vaccinated people can still be infected – although their chances of dying or becoming seriously ill are considerably lower.
But the restrictions don’t go much further these days, although the Dutch government is considering a limited two-week lockdown and German lawmakers are considering legislation that would pave the way for further measures. Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said this week that a lockdown for those who have not been vaccinated is “probably inevitable”, but he does not want to impose the measure on those who have been vaccinated.
Austria is experiencing one of the most severe epidemics in Western Europe, with Germany reporting a record series of infections in recent days.
“We have a real emergency right now,” said Christian Drosten, head of the virology department at Charite Hospital in Berlin, who has started canceling scheduled surgeries.
Düsseldorf University Hospital said earlier this week that its intensive care unit is full, although many facilities face more staff shortages than beds.
Drosten said Germany needs to further increase its vaccination rate by 67% – and quickly. But officials have been reluctant to order vaccine warrants and want to avoid any blanket lockdown.
Health Minister Jens Spahn has indicated that Germany could improve its often lax enforcement of COVID pass requirements.
“If my vaccination certificate is checked more often in a day in Rome than it is sometimes in four weeks in Germany, then I think more can be done,” Spahn said recently.
The Netherlands is in a similar situation: the country announced the highest daily number of new cases since the start of the pandemic on Thursday, hospitals warn the situation could worsen, but authorities are reluctant to crack down too harshly. Amid these concerns, Utrecht organizers said they could not in good conscience gather tens of thousands of people to greet Santa Claus at the annual children’s beloved Sinterklaas party.
Cities in Germany, on the other hand, have held outdoor carnival celebrations this week – but Cologne party leader Carnival Prince Sven I. has canceled public appearances after testing positive.
In the UK, which lifted remaining restrictions in July and has seen big spikes as well as drops in cases since, Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists the country can ‘live with the virus’. The government will only reimpose restrictions if the health service comes under “unsustainable” pressure, he says.
Spain, once one of the hardest hit countries in Europe, perhaps offers an example of how risk can be managed.
It has vaccinated 80% of its population, and although face masks are no longer mandatory outdoors, many people still wear them. While infections have increased slightly recently, Rafael Bengoa, one of Spain’s leading public health experts, said that given the high vaccination rate “the virus will no longer be able to dominate us”.
Several countries are hoping that pushing the vaccinations harder will get them there. Germany plans to reopen vaccination centers across the country to speed up booster injections. France is also placing its hopes in the booster doses while urging the refractory to be vaccinated for the first time. Italy is also expanding its recall program as the numbers increase.
Pankhania says no action will control the pandemic.
“To really control it, it has to be multi-layered (…) avoid crowds, avoid poorly ventilated areas, be immune, wear a mask,” he said.
Associated Press journalists across Europe contributed.