Daily coronavirus deaths in Europe could reach four or five times their April peak within months without effective countermeasures, the World Health Organization has said, as nine more countries reported record numbers of new infections.
Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said on Thursday that Europe had recorded its highest weekly number of new Covid-19 cases as the virus again spread rapidly across the continent.
“The evolving epidemiological situation in Europe raises great concern: daily cases are up, hospital admissions are up and Covid is now the fifth leading cause of deaths” in the region, killing more than 1,000 people a day, he said.
But Kluge said there was cause for optimism because the situation was not the same as during the first wave of the pandemic, and tighter controls introduced by many European countries this week could save hundreds of thousands of lives.
“We are recording two to three times more cases per day compared with April, but five times fewer deaths, and hospital admissions are taking two to three times longer to double,” he said. “The pandemic today is not the pandemic yesterday – not only in terms of its transmission dynamic, but in the ways we are now equipped to face it.”
Kluge said confirmed cases in the organisation’s 53 European member states had climbed from 6m to more than 7m in 10 days, with records set on 9 and 10 October, when daily totals exceeded 120,000 cases for the first time.
But he said an increase in testing was partly responsible for the rise in confirmed cases, while greater transmission among younger, less vulnerable people, plus hospitals’ improved ability to manage severe cases, was helping to lower the mortality rate.
There was plainly “a realistic potential” for the epidemic to worsen drastically, however, if the disease spread back into older and more vulnerable age groups “as a result of more intense social contacts between generations”.
Models suggested that if governments loosened restrictions for any length of time, daily Covid deaths could reach five times their previous highs by January next year, Kluge said. But the models also showed that simple measures could dramatically slow the trend.
“The systematic and generalised wearing of masks, at a 95% rate rather than the 60% rate today, together with strict controls on social gatherings in public or private spaces, could save up to 281,000 lives by 1 February,” he said.
Tighter restrictions announced by several European countries – from the Netherlands to Spain and France and the Czech Republic – were “good because absolutely necessary”, Kluge said.
“They are appropriate and necessary responses to what the data is telling us: transmission and sources of contamination occur in homes and indoor public places, and within communities complying poorly with self-protection measures.”
In Brussels, the European commission – whose president, Ursula von der Leyen, went into self-isolation after a colleague tested positive – said EU governments were not fully prepared for the latest surge in Covid-19 infections.
“While the evolution of the pandemic is getting back to March levels, our state of preparedness is not,” the EU executive’s vice-president, Margaritis Schinas, said.
Schinas urged member states to adopt a common strategy for the new phase of the pandemic and avoid the “cacophony” of different national measures that characterised the first months of the crisis on the continent.
Health policy is a national prerogative in the 27-country bloc, and the EU commission can only make recommendations for common measures, but as trials of vaccines advance, Brussels is urging EU governments to prepare vaccination plans.
Hospitals and vaccination services should be properly staffed with skilled workers equipped with necessary protective gear, it said, and vaccines should be made available first to the most vulnerable groups – potentially more than 200 million of the EU’s 450 million citizens.
Among other developments on Thursday:
The Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Bosnia all reported record numbers of new infections.
France said it would deploy 12,000 police to enforce a 9pm-6am curfew starting in nine urban centres on Friday, and spend another €1bn helping businesses.
Germans were told it was up to them to halt the spread of the virus, as daily new cases reached a record of 6,638. “There can be no question any more now that this is the start of a very big second wave,” Angela Merkel’s chief of staff said. “It is up to us to stop the infections.”
Slovenia said education would operate online from Monday for older elementary school pupils and all high school students. For seven Slovenian regions, gatherings of more than 10 people are forbidden and masks are obligatory outdoors.
The Czech Republic will start building capacity for Covid-19 patients in a Prague exhibition centre as the country grapples with Europe’s fastest infection rate.
Austria ordered the first local quarantine of its second wave, in Kuchl near Salzburg, saying the situation in the town of 7,000 was “out of control”.