(THE HAGUE, Netherlands) — 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. Austria also plans to lock down unvaccinated persons.
Two years after a worldwide health crisis which has claimed the lives of more than 5,000,000 people, infection is back in Western Europe. This region boasts high vaccination rates, good healthcare systems, and lockdown measures that are mostly obsolete.
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.
Senior clinical lecturer, Dr. Bharat Pantkhania at Exeter University College of Medicine and Health says the rapid rise in infections is due to a large population of people not vaccinated and an increased level of socialization after the lockdown.
The pandemic was not as severe in Western Europe, so hospitals aren’t under the same strain. But, many still struggle to manage the increasing number of COVID patients and clear the backlog of surgeries and tests with sick or tired staff. According to Johns Hopkins University data, even the worst-hit countries in the region experienced far less deaths than those from the United States over the last four weeks.
It is now a question of whether governments can stop this new upswing from destroying their economies, disrupting education, and impacting 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.”
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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 has been suffering from one of the worst outbreaks of Ebola in Western Europe. This is in addition to Germany which recently reported record-breaking infections.
“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. Officials have resisted ordering mandated vaccines, and they want to avoid blanket lockdowns.
Jens Spahn, Health Minister, suggested that Germany might improve the enforcement of its COVID passing requirements which are often too lax.
“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.
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The Netherlands is also in trouble: The Netherlands has announced its highest daily count of cases for the pandemic since it began on Thursday. Officials have been reluctant to take any drastic measures, while hospitals warn that things could worsen. 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 more than 80% of the population. While face masks may not be required outside, some people still use 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.”
A number of countries hope that more people will be vaccinated. Germany will reopen all vaccination centres across the country in order to accelerate booster shots. France, on the other hand, is focusing its efforts on booster doses. It also encourages holdouts to receive their first shot. Italy’s booster program is expanding as the numbers increase.
Pankhania claims that there is no one-size fits all solution to 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.
The European Associated Press reporter team contributed.