Europe’s COVID rise as winter approaches could bode ill for the United States

Winter is coming, and Europe is once again a coronavirus epicenter.

Germany’s beloved Christmas markets are in jeopardy, and its intensive care beds are filling up. Austria tells the unvaccinated to stay out of restaurants and cafes. The Netherlands is heading for partial confinement, the first in Western Europe since summer.

In Eastern Europe, where vaccination is generally low, the situation is much more dire, with rising daily mortality rates in states such as Romania and Bulgaria, which are members of the European Union. The World Health Organization, which includes Russia in its European region, on Wednesday reported a 10% increase in coronavirus deaths in Europe over the previous week, countering a downward trend in most other regions.

Across the continent, European governments are anxiously looking at a likely backlash if unpopular measures such as tight stoppages spread again, even as they weigh on potentially dire public health consequences if security measures are violated.

Colder temperatures are driving people indoors, and holiday gatherings add to risks posed by crowded conditions, public health experts warn. The discouraging feeling of COVID-19 déjà vu is sharp in countries like Germany, where vaccination rates are the lowest in Western Europe and new infections are breaking records.

“It would be advisable to cancel all major events,” Lothar Wieler, head of the German disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said Friday, warning that large indoor celebrations could “end up being super-widespread events.”

In Europe, as in the United States, it is mostly the unvaccinated who become seriously ill and die. But progressive infections – vaccinated people contracting the disease – and the specter of declining immunity give fresh ammunition to vaccine resistance fighters, galvanizing political tensions that populist movements across the continent have sought for months to exploit.

In the nearly two years since the pandemic began, Europe’s waves of infection have often predicted similar suffering across the Atlantic.

Nearly a year after vaccination began in most advanced countries, Western Europe’s vaccination rates are higher than those in the United States. Less than 60% of Americans are fully vaccinated, compared with nearly 67% in Germany and up to nearly 88% in Portugal, according to a tracker from Oxford University.

Germany, which initially won applause for a sober, science-driven approach to containing coronavirus infections, exemplified the painful reversal of fortune experienced by a handful of countries in a pandemic that killed more than 5 million people worldwide. The highly contagious Delta variety this year has made dramatic strides even in countries like this that have adopted early disease prevention protocols.

Virus hotspots face tensions on their healthcare systems, and hospitals in parts of Europe, even if not overwhelmed by COVID patients, have fewer resources to devote to caring for people who have heart attacks or get into car accidents – a pattern also seen in U.S. states. which are most affected.

In Germany, authorities have warned that with daily new infection rates standing at nearly 50,000, about 3,000 of those cases would require hospitalization, and about 350 of those patients will end up in intensive care units that are already filled to capacity. Between 200 and 250 Germans die every day.

“We are feeling worse than a year ago, and we are now facing a real crisis situation,” Christian Drosten, Germany’s chief virologist and government adviser, said in a podcast on Wednesday. He warned of vaccine hesitation, citing “15 million people who could actually be and should be vaccinated by now.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who heads an interim government while a new one is being formed, has expressed public frustration at the 30% of German adults who have refused to be vaccinated, saying they are not fulfilling collective responsibilities. The long-serving German leader, an educated scientist, leaned away from politics and did not seek a new term in the September elections.

Her compatriots, Merkel said in a business conference via video link on Thursday, could well consider readily available vaccinations as “a great wealth, a huge achievement of science and technology.”

But the outgoing chancellor said that must be linked to another sentiment: “a certain duty to contribute to protecting society.”

The center-left coalition expected to succeed Merkel opposes a national blockade like those imposed last year, which has caused economic hardship for many businesses. But the political group made up of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats this week proposed a measure to reintroduce free testing for all, and mandatory daily testing for employees and visitors to nursing homes.

Neighboring Germany Austria, which has also seen record daily infection rates in recent days, is looking to differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated people in imposing restrictions. In two particularly affected areas, Austrian authorities announced on Friday, unvaccinated people will be told to stay home from Monday in addition to tasks such as work or shopping.

Other European countries are taking a more one-size-fits-all approach. The Netherlands on Friday announced a three-week period starting Saturday of restrictions including early stops for bars and restaurants and a ban on spectators at sporting events.

As in the United States, Germany sees a hardening line between the vaccination-willing and the vaccination-hesitant. Some celebrities – like singer Nena, of “99 Red Balloons” fame, or football star Joshua Kimmich – have protested against vaccines, to the consternation of public health experts who would like to see them serve as role models.

And in a phenomenon familiar to Americans, ordinary Germans routinely express complete disbelief at the views or those in the opposite camp.

“I can’t understand why anyone would prefer to go unvaccinated – it’s really comparable to seeing people there as drunk drivers consciously endangering their lives and other lives,” said Nikola Graff, a 52-year-old gynecologist in Berlin. .

Pockets of resistance are strongest in the former East Germany, but not limited to it. Isabel Garcia, an independent communications coach from the northern city of Kiel, has no plans to receive the shot.

“The pressure has become intense, but it’s counterproductive because I don’t think you can convince people by pressing them,” the 51-year-old said.

Although public health experts around the world say the potential effects of COVID are far more dangerous than the risks of inoculation, Garcia called the vaccines “experimental.”

Meanwhile, many Germans are upset about the prospect of a winter in which favorite holiday traditions may once again fall victim to the coronavirus.

At a Christmas market in central Berlin, Ursula Bergmann, 62, who runs a small stand, said she fears being banned from selling the season. gluehwein, the spicy alcohol that is a German seasonal favorite.

“The restrictions that could be introduced would erase the Christmas spirit,” she said. “Without a lot of wine, everything here is pretty deserted.”

Special correspondent Kirschbaum reported from Berlin and staff writer King from Washington.

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