As Europe struggles with a fourth Covid-19 wave, several countries have begun enacting new restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus, including local or national lockdowns.
Europe is now the 'epicenter' of the pandemic
Europe accounted for 59% of all newly reported coronavirus cases and nearly half of all the Covid-19 deaths for the week ending in Nov. 4, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). During that time, there were 1.8 million new cases and around 24,000 deaths across Europe.
Several countries are also seeing record numbers of daily new cases, the Wall Street Journal reports. For example, Austria reported over 15,000 daily new Covid-19 cases, and Germany reported over 65,000 new cases—the highest case numbers the countries have seen since the beginning of the pandemic.
"We are at another critical point of pandemic resurgence," said Hans Kluge, director of WHO's European region. "Europe is back at the epicenter of the pandemic—where we were one year ago."
According to Kluge, cases have surged throughout Europe because precautions, such as masking, have been relaxed and too few people are vaccinated. Even countries with relatively high vaccination rates are experiencing Covid-19 outbreaks among their unvaccinated populations, the New York Times reports.
These new cases have also led to an influx of hospitalizations, and WHO projects that hospitals in 43 of the 53 countries in its European region will face high-to-extreme stress over the next three months.
European countries implement new restrictions to curb outbreaks
This new surge in Covid-19 cases has prompted many European countries to enact new measures, including increased restrictions on the unvaccinated and lockdowns.
For example, Greece on Thursday announced that people who are unvaccinated will be prohibited from entering public indoor spaces, such as cinemas, theaters, museums, and gyms—even if they test negative for Covid-19. Around 61% of Greece's population is vaccinated, Axios reports. According to the Times, the country previously barred the unvaccinated from indoor cafes and restaurants.
In Germany, lawmakers last week voted to require unvaccinated people provide daily Covid-19 test results when they go to work or use public transportation. In addition, access to public indoor spaces, as well as cultural and sporting events, will be limited to people who are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 in areas where hospitalizations have reached a certain threshold.
"Many of the measures that are now needed would not have been needed if more people were vaccinated," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "And it isn't too late to get vaccinated now." Nearly 70% of the country's population is fully vaccinated, WSJ reports.
Currently, two German states, Bavaria and Saxony, have enacted local lockdowns, and Jens Spahn, the country's health minister, said a national lockdown may still be possible. "We are in a position where nothing should be ruled out," he said.
In Austria, the government announced a nationwide lockdown beginning Monday, Axios reports—making it the first European country to re-enter a national lockdown since the spring. All schools and most stores will be closed, and all cultural events will be cancelled during the lockdown, which will initially last 10 days, before being reevaluated.
"We have not succeeded in convincing enough people to get vaccinated," said Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg. "It hurts that such measures still have to be taken." Around 65% of the country's population is vaccinated, Axios reports.
In addition, Austria will mandate Covid-19 vaccination for its residents starting Feb. 1. "Increasing the vaccination rate—and I think we're all in agreement on this—is our only way to break out of this vicious cycle of viral waves and lockdown discussions for good," Schallenberg said. “We don't want a fifth wave, we don't want a sixth and seventh wave.”
WHO warns the U.S. to take notice
According to The Hill, WHO has warned U.S. officials to take notice of Europe's rise in Covid-19 cases and learn from the region's mistakes to prevent its own winter surge.
"The basic principle is, if there is a situation where the peak is accelerating, don't wait" to bring back Covid-19 restrictions, and "the earlier, the stricter, the better," Kluge said.
Separately, Tom Wenseleers, an evolutionary biologist and biostatistician at KU Leuven, a university in Belgium, agreed with WHO's assessment, saying that the United States should pay attention to what is happening across Europe.
According to Wenseleers, Europe's rising Covid-19 case rates may be "a sign that the U.S. might still see resurgences, as well." Covid-19 case rates have also been rising across the United States, prompting recent discussions among health experts of another potential winter surge.
Ultimately, he said that "convincing as many people to get vaccinated should be the top priority," as well as "setting up booster campaigns" for those most at risk for both the United States and Europe. (Cumming-Bruce, New York Times, 11/16; Schuetze, New York Times, 11/19; Frazier, Axios, 11/18; Schuetze, New York Times, 11/18; Schultheis/Grieshaber, Associated Press, 11/19; Knutson, Axios, 11/19; Pancevski, Wall Street Journal, 11/18; Chen, Axios, 11/19; Axios, 11/18; Kitsantonis, New York Times, 11/18; Rai, The Hill, 11/08; Da Silva, NBC News, 11/15)