WorldEurope dives into a new wave of covid-19 in countries with delayed...

Europe dives into a new wave of covid-19 in countries with delayed vaccination

In the second autumn of the coronavirus, Europe is suffering a new onslaught by covid-19, making it clear that the pandemic is not over. Some countries in the East, with low vaccination rates, are now facing the worst wave since the beginning of the global health crisis, both in number of cases and in hospital saturation. But even others with around 70% inoculated are starting to run into trouble: the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark are in trouble and are either re-establishing restrictions or planning to do so. Spain looks at the rest of the continent in a privileged situation: with the second lowest incidence (58.7 cases per 100,000 inhabitants), only behind Malta, and one of the highest vaccination coverage (80%). Experts rule out that hospitals suffer from the saturation of previous waves, but the upward trend in cases in the country begins to outline a sixth wave, for now very slight, whose reach is difficult to predict.

This new European wave was not unexpected. Enric Álvarez, from the Computational Biology and Complex Systems study group at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, explains that the most explosive growth is taking place in countries with few vaccines: the extreme cases are Romania (30% vaccination coverage, according to the latest figures from the website Our World in Data, although the authorities speak in 45%) and Bulgaria (22.7%), where the ICUs do not keep up and citizens refuse the vaccine because of the lack of trust in the authorities and the misinformation that floods the networks social media and the media.

“In other countries with higher vaccination rates, Rt [taxa de reprodução] it’s around 1.1 to 1.3, something that wasn’t unthinkable given what we’ve seen in some US states. The United Kingdom, for example, has accumulated growth that has never exceeded 0.5% weekly, despite having been without any measures since July”, says Álvarez, also recalling that, although the vaccine serves to curb contagion, there are many other factors that influence the growth of cases.

Spain does not have clear references, as almost no other country achieves such high vaccination rates or such a favorable response to the third dose that is already being applied in people over 70 years of age. Denmark, which until a few months ago was on a very similar trajectory of vaccinations and diagnoses, is now suffering from a surge in cases that has authorities fearing imminent hospital saturation. But there are differences between the two countries: the Scandinavian performs many more tests than the Iberian, which probably leads to detecting more cases; is five points down on vaccination and lifted all restrictions on September 10th. In Spain, on the other hand, the mask remains mandatory indoors, something that the experts consulted recommend keeping during the northern winter.

According to Miguel Ángel Martínez-González, professor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the University of Navarra, the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) predicts that cases will continue to rise in Europe, driven, among other factors, by low temperatures that will keep people longer indoors without ventilation. “It won’t be what we’ve seen in other waves, because vaccines prevent many people from becoming seriously ill and dying. But we have to make it clear that they are not 100% effective. None are. People tend to think that it’s a bulletproof vest that will totally protect them, so they relax and the contagion increases. It is necessary to continue keeping distance, ventilation and masks.”

German epidemiologist Hajo Zeeb, from the Leibniz Institute, attributes the situation in Central and Eastern Europe to a combination of three factors: “A slow vaccination process, the arrival of cold and a greater relaxation of private life”. “In Germany we imagined that something like this would happen, especially among the unvaccinated, who are still many”, he adds. The anti-vaccination movement has some diffusion in central Europe. In Austria, for example, a new political party of self-styled “skeptics” called the MFG won 6.2% of the vote and entered a regional parliament earlier this year.

The German government stopped offering free antigen tests to citizens in October in the hope that, with their pockets affected, many would opt to accept the vaccine in order to enter bars and restaurants. Germany requires a certificate of vaccination, cure or negative test in most closed establishments. The initiative did not work, as vaccination rates barely changed. Only 67.1% of the population has both doses. Several states, as well as the president of the German Medical Association, Klaus Reinhardt, have called for the resumption of free tests in order to detect more cases and control the transmission chains. This Monday, the incidence hit a record, surpassing 200 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in one week (it would be around 400 with the parameters used in Spain, the interval of 14 days). Such a high number of infected has not been seen since last December, when bars, restaurants and non-essential businesses were closed.

German authorities called the situation an “unvaccinated Pandemic” because 90% of coronavirus patients in ICUs were not immunized. The overload in hospitals is starting to be noticed: in several states, there are less than 10% of free beds in the ICUs. Germany wants to offer the dose of souvenir to the entire population. “The six-month booster vaccine should be the rule rather than the exception,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Friday. For the time being, some States have imposed in their territories the so-called 2G rule, which prevents entry into public places of those who are not vaccinated or recovered from the disease. Exams would no longer be enough to go to a restaurant or a movie. Norms also change in geriatric homes, which have registered recent outbreaks with several deaths. Even if vaccinated, visitors will have to undergo an examination.

Back to restrictions

The increase in cases is also encouraging the resumption of restrictions that already seemed to have been removed. Austria, where the accumulated incidence in 14 days is around 1,000 cases per 100,000 population, has imposed since Monday new measures such as mandatory vaccination (or a certificate of having been through the disease) in order to enter bars and restaurants. Barbershops and beauty salons also require proof of vaccination or cure, like any event that brings together more than 25 people. The local press reports that this weekend the vaccination centers registered queues that have not been seen for months. The restrictions will be maintained at least until Christmas, warned Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler, who has not ruled out other measures if the situation does not improve.

In The Hague (Netherlands), 25,000 people demonstrated this Sunday against the return of masks and the safety distance of 1.5 meters. Although the Executive is being very cautious when it comes to re-adopting restrictive measures to avoid social unrest, the covid-19 pass is necessary in hotels, museums, swimming pools and gyms. It is also recommended to work from home for at least half of the weekly day and not shake hands when greeting. The Institute for Health and the Environment calculates that there could be a spike in ICU admissions in mid-December, given the rapid rise in infections.

British authorities are reluctant to reinstate restrictions for the time being and want to begin to believe that the recent wave of contagions has peaked and has started to stabilize. But Boris Johnson’s government has yet to rule out activating its Plan B, with some sorts of social limitations. The level of transmission between schoolchildren appears to have reached a ceiling, but the number of hospitalizations is beginning to put considerable pressure on the National Health Service (NHS). “We still have a very manageable situation, but we still receive cases. And the problem is that we had to go back to isolating floors not dedicated to covid-19, because they were also infected there,” says Borja Tejero, a Spaniard specializing in Internal Medicine for Acute Patients, who has worked for years at a London hospital. His description agrees with this Sunday’s statement by epidemiologist Susan Hopkins, director of British Public Health, to the BBC: “The hospitalized are people over 70 or those with pre-existing illnesses. The effects of the vaccine are weakening, especially in these groups of patients,” said Hopkins.

The Polish authorities decided to unsubtly encourage their citizens to get vaccinated. On November 1, taking advantage of visits to the graves by the Dead, mobile units were installed in front of some cemeteries, offering single-dose vaccines or the second dose of others. Poland has been recommending a booster dose for the entire population for a few days. Indoor masks are still mandatory, but their use has already been quite relaxed. A few days ago, the health minister said that the police would expand controls.

Hungary, a country of 9.7 million people, this weekend recorded more than 200 deaths from covid-19. Since November 1, masks have become mandatory on public transport again due to the rise in infections, and hospitals are again restricting visits. The Government announced last week that companies will be able to demand vaccination of their workers. “It’s not enough!” exclaims health worker Zsombor Kunetz on his social networks, recalling that wearing a mask in shops and cultural and sporting events is only “optional” in Hungary. Several experts criticized the lenient nature of the government measures.

Faced with this wave of covid-19 in Europe, Alberto Infante, professor of International Health at the National School of Health in Spain, recommends that his country put its beards to soak. “It is true that in Eastern Europe the percentages of vaccination are lower than in Spain, but not so much in Germany or some Nordic countries. Therefore, it is still necessary to vaccinate the four million people over 12 years of age who have not yet been vaccinated, and not let down their guard with non-pharmacological measures to prevent outbreaks. And quickly control them when they appear”. Autumn-winter induces meetings in closed spaces, and it is convenient to insist on the use of the mask.