Loading...

Not Out of the Woods: COVID Cases Rising in Western Europe

November 12, 2021by Mike Corder, Associated Press
Not Out of the Woods: COVID Cases Rising in Western Europe
A face mask left on Roemerberg square in Frankfurt, Germany, Nov. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, file)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Santa won’t be getting his traditional welcome in the Dutch city of Utrecht this year. The ceremonial head of Carnival celebrations in Germany’s Cologne had to bow out because he tested positive for COVID-19. And Austria is considering imposing a lockdown on unvaccinated people.

Nearly two years into a global health crisis that has killed more than 5 million people, infections are again sweeping across parts of Western Europe, a region with relatively high vaccination rates and good health care systems but where lockdown measures are largely a thing of the past.

The World Health Organization said coronavirus deaths rose by 10% in Europe in the past week, and an agency official declared last week that the continent was “back at the epicenter of the pandemic.” Much of that is being driven by spiraling outbreaks in Russia and Eastern Europe — where vaccination rates tend to be low — but countries in the west such as Germany and Britain recorded some of the highest new case tolls in the world.

While nations in Western Europe all have vaccination rates over 60% — and some like Portugal and Spain are much higher — that still leaves a significant portion of their populations without protection.

Dr. Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at Exeter University College of Medicine and Health, says that the large number of unvaccinated people combined with a widespread post-lockdown resumption of socializing and a slight decline in immunity for people who got their shots months ago is driving up the pace of infections.

Thanks largely to vaccination, hospitals in Western Europe are not under the same pressure they were earlier in the pandemic, but many are still straining to handle rising numbers of COVID patients while also attempting to clear backlogs of tests and surgeries with exhausted or sick staff. Even the countries experiencing the most serious outbreaks in the region recorded far fewer deaths per person over the past four weeks than the United States did, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The question now is if countries can tamp down this latest upswing without resorting to stringent shutdowns that devastated economies, disrupted education and weighed on mental health. Experts say probably — but authorities can’t avoid all restrictions and must boost vaccination rates.

“I think the era of locking people up in their homes is over because we now have tools to control COVID — the testing, vaccines and therapeutics,” said Devi Sridhar, chair 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 now use COVID passes — proof of full vaccination, recovery from the virus or a negative test result — to access venues like bars and restaurants. Pankhania warned that the passes can give a false sense of security since fully vaccinated people can still get infected — though their chances of dying or getting seriously sick are dramatically lower.

But restrictions don’t go much further these days, although the Dutch government reportedly is considering a limited two-week lockdown and German lawmakers are mulling legislation that would pave the way for new measures. Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said this week that a lockdown for the unvaccinated is “probably unavoidable,” but he doesn’t want to impose the measure on those who got the shot.

Austria is seeing one of the most serious outbreaks in Western Europe, along with Germany, which has reported a string of record-high infections in recent days.

“We have a real emergency situation right now,” said Christian Drosten, the head of virology at Berlin’s Charite Hospital, which has started canceling scheduled surgeries.

Duesseldorf’s university hospital said earlier this week that its ICU is full, though many facilities are struggling more with staff shortages than bed space.

Drosten said Germany must increase its vaccination rate of 67% further — and fast. But officials have balked at ordering vaccine mandates and want to avoid any blanket lockdowns.

Health Minister Jens Spahn indicated that Germany could improve its often lax enforcement of COVID pass requirements.

“If my vaccination certificate is checked more often in one day in Rome than it sometimes is in four weeks in Germany, then I think more can be done,” Spahn said recently.

The Netherlands is in a similar bind: The country announced the highest daily tally of new cases since the pandemic began Thursday, hospitals are warning the situation could get worse, but officials are reluctant to clamp down too hard. Amid these concerns, organizers in Utrecht said they couldn’t in good conscience bring tens of thousands of people together to greet Santa at the annual Sinterklaas party beloved of children.

Cities in Germany, by contrast, went ahead with outdoor Carnival celebrations this week — but the head of Cologne’s party, Carnival Prince Sven I., canceled public appearances after testing positive.

In the United Kingdom, which lifted remaining restrictions in July and has seen big spikes as well as dips 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 Europe’s hardest hit nations, perhaps offers an example of how the risks can be managed.

It has vaccinated 80% of its population, and while face masks are no longer mandatory outdoors, many people still wear them. While infections have ticked up slightly recently, Rafael Bengoa, one of Spain’s leading public health experts, said that given the high vaccination rate, “the virus won’t be able to dominate us again.”

Several countries are hoping that pushing harder on immunizations will get them there. Germany plans to re-open vaccination centers across the country to speed booster shots. France is also pinning its hopes on booster doses while urging holdouts to get their first shots. Italy is also expanding its booster program as numbers edge higher.

Pankhania says that no single measure will control the pandemic.

“To really control it, it has to be multi-layered … avoid crowds, avoid poorly ventilated places, be immunized, wear your mask,” he said.

In The News

Health

Voting

Health

May 18, 2022
by Alexa Hornbeck
CalAIM Launches Program to Reform Housing and Health Care Coverage in California  

A new program launched this year out of California called CalAIM helps high-risk and low-income Medi-Cal residents find affordable housing... Read More

A new program launched this year out of California called CalAIM helps high-risk and low-income Medi-Cal residents find affordable housing through their health insurance plans. The CalAIM program is intended to improve health outcomes of Medi-Cal enrollees, specifically those with behavioral health needs, seniors, people living... Read More

May 18, 2022
by Alexa Hornbeck
Smart Pacifier Provides Non-Invasive Way to Monitor Babies’ Electrolytes in Hospitals

Researchers from Washington State University released a study on Monday regarding their development of a smart pacifier that can be used to... Read More

Researchers from Washington State University released a study on Monday regarding their development of a smart pacifier that can be used to monitor infant health in hospitals. The wireless, bioelectronic pacifier will eliminate the need for invasive, twice-daily blood draws to monitor babies’ electrolytes in newborn intensive care... Read More

May 18, 2022
by Alexa Hornbeck
WHO and UNICEF Release Report on Role of Assistive Technologies 

The World Health Organization and UNICEF released a report on Monday that finds more than 2.5 billion people need one or more... Read More

The World Health Organization and UNICEF released a report on Monday that finds more than 2.5 billion people need one or more assistive products, such as wheelchairs, hearing aids or apps that support communication and cognition.  Despite the need, nearly 1 billion are denied access to such technologies,... Read More

May 18, 2022
by Alexa Hornbeck
House Committee Advances Legislation for Medication Access and Training for Opioid Addiction 

During a mark-up session on Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to advance provisions of the Medication Access and Training... Read More

During a mark-up session on Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to advance provisions of the Medication Access and Training Expansion Act, known as the MATE Act. The legislation is designed to ensure controlled medication prescribers have a baseline knowledge of how to treat patients suffering with... Read More

May 18, 2022
by Alexa Hornbeck
FDA Approves First At-Home Test for Detecting COVID, Flu and RSV

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the first at-home test that can identify and differentiate multiple respiratory viruses at... Read More

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the first at-home test that can identify and differentiate multiple respiratory viruses at the same time, detecting influenza A and B, respiratory syncytial virus and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.  “While the FDA has now authorized many COVID-19... Read More

May 18, 2022
by Alexa Hornbeck
Study Shows Link Between Arthritis Pain and Mental Health

The Arthritis Foundation released new findings on May 17 showing a link between emotional support and well-being and arthritis pain. The Center... Read More

The Arthritis Foundation released new findings on May 17 showing a link between emotional support and well-being and arthritis pain. The Center for Program Design and Evaluation at Dartmouth College conducted the analysis using data from nearly 27,000 patient responses collected from 2019 to 2022 from the Arthritis... Read More

News From The Well