Europe Faces Third Wave Of COVID, Potentially Worse Than Previous Surges Due To Variants
A healthcare worker in France monitoring a COVID-19 patient in critical condition in April 2020.

European countries are experiencing soaring COVID-19 infection and death rates. With a third wave sweeping across Europe, hospitals are at risk of becoming overwhelmed and governments are facing increasing public opposition to continued lockdowns and social distancing restrictions.

The WHO European Region, which includes 53 member states, has recorded an upward trend in cases for four consecutive weeks, with a 13% increase in new cases since mid-March. France, Germany, and Poland are among those worst hit.

The newly reported and cumulative COVID-19 cases and deaths by WHO Region, as of 21 March 2021.

Europe has recorded 1.4 million new cases in the last seven days, as of 21 March, accounting for 44% of global new cases. Compared to countries with high rates of vaccinations, including Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States, several countries in the European region, especially in central Europe, have reported much higher infection rates. 

The current surge in cases is likely due to the more transmissible B.117 variant, first identified in Britain, making this wave “harder to curb” than previous surges in cases, according to German health officials.

In the midst of critiques over the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and the rising infection rates, some leaders are encountering an increasingly restive public. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel walked back a strict lockdown planned for the Easter weekend (2-4 April) following widespread public opposition. French President Emmanuel also came under fire for his refusal to take responsibility for the recent surge in cases – after failing to implement a national lockdown in late January. 

France’s Hospitals May Have to Decide Which Patients Get Limited Resources

Over a dozen regions in France, including Paris, have been put under partial lockdown, but infections continue to soar, with 37,014 new cases reported nationally on Sunday. Some 20 million people are living in ‘high-infection zones’ and are under strict travel restrictions.

A healthcare worker in France caring for a COVID-19 patient in critical condition in April 2020.

In an article published on Sunday in Le Journal du Dimanche, 41 critical care doctors in Paris warned that “the current measures will be insufficient to quickly reverse the alarming curve in infections.”

In the coming weeks, the doctors predict an unprecedented situation for the French public health system – of triaging what seriously ill patients may receive intensive care.

“We have never seen such a situation, even during the worst moments of these last years,” the Paris-based group of physicians wrote.

“In this catastrophic situation, where there is a discordance between needs and available resources, we will be obliged to triage patients, in order to save as many lives as possible. This triage will concern all patients, COVID and non-COVID, in particular adult patients in critical care,” the doctors wrote. 

The number of patients in intensive care in France is already nearing the level seen during the last big COVID wave in the autumn of 2020. On Sunday, the number of patients in ICUs was 4,872, almost reaching the 4,919 ICU cases that were recorded during the country’s worst point in the pandemic so far.

France’s ICU beds were at 90% capacity, with the majority of cases linked to the B.117 variant. According to French healthcare workers, those with severe COVID illness are also younger than patients seen in the previous waves. Currently, a large portion of hospitalized patients are between 30 and 65 years of age.

“For the past year, French people have been bombarded with data and daily death tolls. And we don’t always realize what these figures mean: 300, 400 deaths every day – that’s like a plane crashing every day…We must not get used to these numbers, because if we do, the fight is lost,” Benjamin Clouzeau, an ICU doctor at Bordeaux Hospital, told Euronews

Germany Risks Nearing “Breaking Point” – Cases Could Reach 100,000 Per Day

Germany recorded 16,378 new cases on Sunday, up from 8,365 on 9 March. In total, the country has reported 2.7 million confirmed cases and 75,913 deaths. 

“The forecasting shows that if the measures are as they are now, the [new case] numbers could reach 100,000 per day…if this situation is not contained,” Lothar Wieler, President of the Robert Koch Institute – the governmental agency leading Germany’s pandemic response – said at a press conference on Friday. 

“At the moment, the figures are rising too fast and the variants are making the situation especially dangerous,” said Jens Spahn, the German Health Minister, at the joint press conference with Wieler. “If this continues unabated, we run the risk of our healthcare system reaching its breaking point during the month of April.” 

Jens Spahn, the German Health Minister, at a press conference on Friday.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, threatened to centralize Germany’s pandemic response, enabling the government to implement a strict national lockdown. Currently, the decision to impose a lockdown is up to the 16 federal states, several of which are refusing to put in place restrictions to curb the rising infection rates. 

“We need action in the federal states,” Merkel said in a televised interview on the public broadcaster ARD’s Anne Will talkshow on Sunday. “We need to take the appropriate measures very seriously. Some states are doing it; others are not yet doing it.”

Several states have plans to reopen despite the worsening public health situation.

“If we look at the numbers, including the developments today, we need another 10-14 days, at least, of properly driving down contacts and movements, a lockdown if you want to call it that,” Spahn said.

Central Europe Hit by Third Wave

Hungary, Estonia and Poland are also experiencing record high infection rates, among the worst in the world. The rapidly rising infections are forcing governments to tighten restrictions in an effort to halt the third wave.

Hungary recorded 7,263 new cases on Monday, making the total number of cases 641,124. Last week, Hungary claimed the grim record of having the world’s highest daily deaths per capita. 

In spite of the worsening situation, the government has plans to shorten the overnight curfew and extend the hours stores are allowed to remain open. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, insisted there will be a “free summer” without restrictions on national radio on Friday. Virologist Miklós Rusvai predicted that Hungary would see the peak of the third wave in the coming days, while others speculate that the wave will be much bigger than expected. 

Hungary is largely relying on its vaccination campaign to combat the current surge in cases. Some 1.9 million people – 19.9% of the population – have received at least one COVID vaccine dose. Restrictions will ease once 2.5 million people have received the first dose.

Estonia became the country with the world’s highest COVID-19 infection rate in mid-March, with 886 daily new confirmed cases per one million people. On Sunday, Estonia recorded 1,175 new cases and 8 deaths.

Despite having several restrictions in place, Estonia saw infections rise by 10% in those over the age of 65 last week. Government officials warned that the country may have to go under a comprehensive lockdown over the summer if the spread of COVID cannot be curbed. 

Poland tightened restrictions over the weekend, closing kindergartens and hair salons and limiting the number of people allowed to attend church services, but stopping short of implementing restrictions on movement and imposing a nationwide lockdown.

“We have recorded a 25% growth of new infections week on week,” said Wojciech Andrusiewicz, a spokesperson for Poland’s Ministry of Health, on Monday. “For the time being, we have to expect bad scenarios, a growth of new infections, and, unfortunately, a growing number of deaths.”

Poland will increase the number of COVID-19 beds in hospitals by 3,000 this week, followed by another 3,800 next week. Over the past two weeks, the country has increased COVID beds by 10,000, including 1,000 equipped with ventilators. 

“We are a step away from the point when health services will be unable to treat patients properly…And we have to do all we can to avoid this scenario,” said Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s Prime Minister, at a press briefing on Thursday.

Image Credits: Euronews, WHO, Bundesministerium für Gesundheit.

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