Europe’s second wave of coronavirus infections has struck well before flu season even started, with intensive care wards filling up again and bars shutting down. Making matters worse, authorities say, is a widespread case of “COVID-fatigue.”
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Record high daily infections in several eastern European countries and sharp rebounds in the hard-hit west have made clear that Europe never really crushed the COVID-19 curve as hoped, after springtime lockdowns.
Spain this week declared a state of emergency for Madrid amid increasing tensions between local and national authorities over virus containment measures.
Germany offered up soldiers to help with contact tracing in newly flaring hotspots.
Italy mandated masks outdoors and warned that for the first time since the country became the European epicenter of the pandemic, the health system was facing “significant critical issues” as hospitals fill up.
Epidemiologists and residents alike are pointing the finger at governments for having failed to seize on the summertime lull in cases to prepare adequately for the expected autumn onslaught, with testing and ICU staffing still critically short.
In Rome this week, people waited in line for 8-10 hours to get tested, while front-line medics from Kiev to Paris found themselves once again pulling long, short-staffed shifts in overcrowded wards.
“When the state of alarm was abandoned, it was time to invest in prevention, but that hasn’t been done,” lamented Margarita del Val, viral immunology expert with the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center, part of Spain’s top research body, CSIC.
“We are in the fall wave without having resolved the summer wave,” she told an online forum this week.
As infections rise in many European countries, some — including Belgium, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Spain and France — are diagnosing more new cases every day per capita than the United States, according to the seven-day rolling averages of data kept by Johns Hopkins University.
On Friday, France, with a population of about 70 million, reported a record 20,300 new infections.
Experts say Europe’s high infection rate is due in large part to expanded testing that is turning up far more asymptomatic positives than during the first wave, when only the sick could get a test.
But the trend is nevertheless alarming, given the flu season hasn’t even begun, schools are open for in-person learning and the cold weather hasn’t yet driven Europeans indoors, where infection can spread more easily.
“We’re seeing 98,000 cases reported in the last 24 hours. That’s a new regional record. That’s very alarming,” said Robb Butler, executive director of the WHO’s Europe regional office. While part of that is due to increased testing, “It’s also worrisome in terms of virus resurgence.”
It’s also worrisome given many countries still lack the testing, tracing and treating capacity to deal with a second wave of pandemic when the first wave never really ended, said Dr. Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.