COVID-19 cases rising in Western Europe

Santa won’t be getting his traditional welcome in the Dutch city of Utrecht this year.

FILE – a patient breathes through an oxygen mask in the COVID-19 section of the University Clinical Centre hospital in Banja Luka, Bosnia, Nov. 4, 2021. The pandemic is again roaring across parts of Western Europe, a prosperous region with relatively high vaccination rates and good health care systems but where lockdown measures to rein in the virus are largely a thing of the past. Soaring infections in eastern Europe are blamed on vaccine skepticism and low rates of inoculation. While rates are (AP)
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.
While nations in Western Europe all have vaccination rates over 60 per cent — and some like Portugal and Spain are much higher — that still leaves a significant portion of their populations without protection.
FILE – A woman walks past a mural depicting a white dove parachuting COVID-19 vaccine vials, posted near the Italian Health Ministry Headquarters in Rome, April 4, 2021. The pandemic is again roaring across parts of Western Europe, a prosperous region with relatively high vaccination rates and good health care systems but where lockdown measures to rein in the virus are largely a thing of the past. Italy, an early victim of the pandemic, has a high vaccination rate, but is also seeing numbers e (AP)

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 socialising 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.
FILE – A man waits after receiving the Pfizer vaccine, during a COVID-19 vaccination campaign, in Pamplona, northern Spain, May 11, 2021. The pandemic is again roaring across parts of Western Europe, a prosperous region with relatively high vaccination rates and good health care systems but where lockdown measures to rein in the virus are largely a thing of the past. Spain once one of Europes hardest hit nations now has vaccinated 88% of its population aged 12 years and over. (AP Photo/Alvaro (AP)

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.
FILE – A protester wears a t-shirt against COVID-19 vaccinations, whilst standing on Parliament Square, opposite the Houses of Parliament, in London, Oct. 20, 2021. The pandemic is again roaring across parts of Western Europe, a prosperous region with relatively high vaccination rates and good health care systems but where lockdown measures to rein in the virus are largely a thing of the past. The U.K. had Europes highest infection rates for months after the government lifted remaining restricti (AP)

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 cancelling 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 per cent further — and fast. But officials have baulked at ordering vaccine mandates and want to avoid any blanket lockdowns.

FILE – A face mask left on Roemerberg square in Frankfurt, Germany, Nov. 6, 2021. The pandemic is again roaring across parts of Western Europe, a prosperous region with relatively high vaccination rates and good health care systems but where lockdown measures to rein in the virus are largely a thing of the past. Germany, along with parts of France and areas of Eastern Europe, is a good example of what happens when you have widespread reluctance to vaccination. Now those segments of the populatio (AP)

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, organisers 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., cancelled 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.
Nurses from the nearby St Thomas hospital have a rest on the National Covid Memorial Wall in London, Tuesday, April 27, 2021. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has denied a press report which quoted him as allegedly saying he would rather see bodies pile high in their thousands than impose a third national lockdown on the country. The Daily Mail claimed that Johnson made the comment in the fall of 2020, when his government imposed a second lockdown to combat a surge in coronavirus cases. (AP (AP)

Spain, once one of Europe’s hardest hit nations, perhaps offers an example of how the risks can be managed.

It has vaccinated 80 per cent 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 immunisations will get them there. Germany plans to re-open vaccination centres 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 immunised, wear your mask,” he said.

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