Europe’s struggle to contain a second wave of coronavirus has reached a tipping point.
This week, Europe overtook the United States in a key metric that tracks the spread of the virus taking into account differences in population size. The 27 countries of the European Union and the United Kingdom recorded an average of 78,000 cases per day over a seven-day period ending on 12 October, or 152 cases for every million residents. The United States averaged 49,000 a day over the same period, about 150 for every million residents.
This is the first time Europe has surpassed the United States since the virus peak in spring, when the disease was spreading largely unnoticed due to countries’ limited testing capacity. Europe has now reached a critical mass of new cases similar to those the US faced in late June, when infections skyrocketed from Florida to California.
Europe continues to follow the United States in terms of average daily deaths per capita. In the same seven-day period, the United States recorded an average of 2 deaths per day per million residents, double the European average.
Both sides of the Atlantic stepped up testing over the summer, allowing countries to discover far more cases. But in many hotspots in Europe and the United States, the share of positive tests is also on the rise, a sign that disease experts say the virus could spread even faster than testing programs show.
Governments have taken targeted measures in an effort to contain the virus without inflicting the economic pain that comes from nationwide blockades. European leaders have cracked down on specific cities, towns or demographics, such as young people.
This approach, however, collides with the cold math of increasing workloads. Countries including France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK have reported new daily infections of more than 250 per million people per day, higher than reported in the US during the July peak.
“We seem to be at a tipping point in terms of the number of infections,”
Winter is coming and public health experts say governments must control infections or risk overwhelming hospitals with sick patients. A large number of cases also increase the workload of contact tracers tasked with identifying potential vectors and disrupting transmission chains, hampering efforts to control spread.
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“What all the countries are trying to do now, those who are in trouble, is to buy time, to try to survive the winter. And that means lowering the case numbers from where they are now to allow their systems to function, ”said Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh in the UK.
Health experts are also concerned about an increase in the rate of people testing positive for the pathogen. The World Health Organization says countries should aim to get enough tests to keep the share of positive results at around 5% or lower.
The share of coronavirus tests returning positive in France rose to 9% in late September, according to data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, three times the rate in the summer. In Spain, the positivity rate reached 10%. In the UK in early October it was nearly 3%.
Another test sign may be missing cases: Statistical models using a representative sample of UK adults carried out by the country’s statistical agency estimated that between 25 September and 1 October, around 17,200 people per day in England have been infected. The official daily tally for that period averaged 9,500.
The increase in cases began to manifest itself with the increase in hospital admissions. ECDC said in its latest surveillance report that in 19 European countries, including France, Spain and the UK, the number of people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in early October was around a quarter or more of the level. reached during the April peak of the pandemic.
Some health authorities say they are detecting cases earlier this time, when they are less severe, and hospitals are better prepared to treat them.
Coronavirus patients occupy all 30 intensive care beds at Madrid’s La Paz hospital, one of the largest in Spain, according to local radiologist Daniel Bernabeu. However, the hospital has 120 intensive care units with beds usually reserved for postoperative convalescing patients that can be adapted to the needs of Covid-19 cases. The hospital has a total of 220 coronavirus patients.
The first wave of the virus “was a tsunami, it overwhelmed us,” said Dr. Bernabeu. “This second wave is more like a tide.”
One of the main reasons why Europe has not experienced a peak in deaths, similar to that seen during the spring, is that the virus has spread mainly among young people who are less susceptible to it. Older generations with higher mortality rates have managed to keep their distance.
There are signs, however, that the dike between young and old is under tension. A study by Imperial College London estimated that around three in 1,000 UK residents aged 65 and over were infected with the virus in early October, an eight-fold increase from the previous month’s level. . Individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 were the most exposed, with an estimated 12 out of 1,000 deemed infected. Data from British hospitals show that hospitalizations for Covid-19 are low but increase more rapidly among the over 85.
Health authorities blame a flurry of summer social activity for sowing the seeds of Europe’s rebirth. After spending the spring confined to their homes, Europeans went wild for a summer of transcontinental travel and revelry with no clear rules on social distancing. They piled up in beach bars along the Atlantic and sneaked out to illegal raves in Berlin and Paris.
Since then, governments have imposed new restrictions. France has closed bars in Paris and other major cities and introduced the requirement to wear masks virtually anywhere beyond the privacy of home.
Spain declared a state of emergency on Friday, in a move that will allow it to extend a partial blockade in Madrid, where local authorities have resisted new restrictions. The new measures, which affect nearly 4.8 million people in the capital and the nine surrounding cities, allow people to travel in and out of Madrid only for essential purposes such as work and medical assistance.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday a new three-tier system of restrictions for England. Tighter measures have been imposed in the city of Liverpool, where the virus is spreading rapidly, with less onerous restrictions being applied elsewhere.
Tom Wingfield, an infectious disease doctor in Liverpool, said hospitals in his area struggling with increased hospitalizations from Covid-19 are managing with no knock-on effect on routine surgery and other health services, for now. . “With increased pressure on the bed and a long winter ahead, it is unclear how long this situation will remain sustainable,” he said.
—Maria Martinez in Madrid contributed to this article.
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