Europe’s painful second coronavirus wave may be starting to ease, a top World Health Organization official said Thursday, though someone on the continent died of the disease it causes every 17 seconds this past week.
The cautious assessment came after new diagnoses of the novel coronavirus slowed across Europe to 1.8 million cases, compared with 2 million the week before. Some of the worst-hit countries – including Belgium, the Czech Republic and France – have seen significant declines, while in Germany and elsewhere the case numbers are rising.
But hospitals remain packed, and deaths across the WHO’s 51-nation European region have been rising.
“There is good news and not so good news,” Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said at a news conference, describing the drop in new diagnoses as “a small signal, but it’s a signal nevertheless.”
He attributed the decline to national lockdowns and other restrictions imposed across much of Europe this past month. But he urged nations not to lift restrictions too quickly, warning that the small gains could vanish if they threw open doors as rapidly as they did in the summer.
“Too often we have seen the negative impact of easing too quickly following an understandable will from policymakers to free the public from periods of stringency,” he said. “Too often as well, we have also seen how much these short political gains are quickly offset by the devastating impact of having to reinstall mandates shortly after they are eased.”
The WHO continues to believe that a full embrace of mask-wearing and other basic anti-spreading measures would be as effective as a societal lockdown, but mask-wearing in Europe remains below 60%, Kluge said.
Even as virus transmission slows on the continent, there is continued concern about health systems being unable to care for everyone who needs it.
“We are seeing increasing signals related to overwhelmed health systems, with reports that in France, for example, intensive care wards have been at over 95% capacity for 10 days,” Kluge said. Swiss intensive care units are at full capacity, he said.
Meanwhile, more than 29,000 people died of covid-19, the disease the virus can cause, in the WHO’s 51-nation European region this past week, an 18% increase over the week before.
The highest tolls were in Italy and France, which in the past week each averaged more than 590 deaths a day. Only the United States, which has a much larger population than each of those two countries, had a higher daily total.
Deaths this past week in the 27-nation European Union – a smaller group than the WHO’s European cohort – remain 75% higher, per capita, than those in the United States. However, the rolling per capita daily average of new cases in the United States surpassed the European Union on Sunday. That could mean that death rates in the United States will follow suit.
The trajectory of the virus in Europe has been different than in the United States. Europe’s springtime shutdowns were more stringent, and the continent beat back the virus more fully. But that initial success led to complacency over the summer, followed by a resurgence of cases in the fall.
Now, much of Europe is locked down again, though most countries have made a point of keeping students in their classrooms, especially for preteen grades, even as they shutter businesses and ask people to work from home. That contrasts with the United States, where New York City closed schools starting Thursday and other systems have yet to reopen at all, even though indoor dining and gyms remain open in many cities and states.
“Children and adolescents are not considered primary drivers of transmission, and, as such, school closures are not considered to be an effective measure for the control of covid-19,” Kluge said.
In Germany, however, for the first time the majority of new infections are among high-school-age children, sparking new debates over school openings.
While U.S. officials are trying to discourage large gatherings next week for Thanksgiving, European leaders are already warning about a lost Christmas.
“At Christmas, the coronavirus will still be there,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told a Belgian broadcaster on Wednesday, as the country’s traditional Christmas tree was erected in the medieval Grand Place of Brussels even though few will gather to enjoy it. “And people will not be vaccinated. We will still be dangerous to each other. We have to have the courage to admit it.”
“Christmas will not be the same at all,” De Croo said.
Italian Christmas also appears to be on hold. After the country won praise for a model response into the fall, cases have soared, with southern Italy’s hospitals especially overwhelmed. Deaths in Italy are up by a third this week compared to the week prior.
“We will have to spend the festivities in a more sober way,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told Italians on Thursday. “Big parties, kisses and hugs will not be possible; this would mean an abrupt rise in the curve in January. We hope that we can still buy and exchange gifts.”
Susan Hopkins, Public Health England director, said Wednesday that officials want to allow “as close to normal” a Christmas as possible. She said any reprieve may require trade-offs involving tighter restrictions before and after the festive period. England is in lockdown until at least Dec. 2, with pubs, restaurants and nonessential shops closed. Schools and universities remain open.
The prime minister’s spokesman said rules surrounding Christmas will be announced next week, “based on the best and latest data.” On Thursday, the United Kingdom recorded 22,915 cases and 501 deaths. Its total death toll of 53,775 is the highest in Europe.
Many policymakers fear the onset of flu season, which will make monitoring coronavirus cases more difficult.
“We have a long way to go on improvement, and this is happening at the beginning of winter, when respiratory viruses have a favorable habitat to spread,” Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa told reporters on Wednesday. He said he was glad daily diagnoses in his country had finally started to diminish but was worried that they remained so high, averaging 222 new cases a day for the past week.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the number of new cases is no longer growing exponentially, after the closure of bars and restaurants and new contact restrictions came into force at the beginning of the month. Germany recorded 22,609 new cases on Thursday, a slight increase from 21,866 a week earlier.
Merkel still has been pushing for further restrictions, warning that it will be a tougher winter, with the virus more “aggressive” in the colder months.
The number of patients requiring intensive care treatment in Germany has exploded over the past month, from 655 in mid-October to 3,561 on Wednesday.
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Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia. The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris and Luisa Beck in Berlin and James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.