A spike of Covid-19 cases and deaths in Portugal driven by the Omicron BA.5 subvariant in spite of warm temperatures is causing capitals across Europe to once again consider measures against a pandemic that has started to fade into public memory.
Portugal confirmed 26,848 new cases and recorded 47 Covid deaths on Wednesday – the highest daily death toll since 17 February, when 51 deaths from the disease were reported.
The trend contrasts with the pandemic situation in France, Germany, the UK and neighbouring Spain, where case rates have been declining for the last two months.
According to figures from the Portuguese health ministry, 1,455 people died from Covid as the country entered its sixth wave of the pandemic in April and May.
The latest report from the health ministry and the Ricardo Jorge Institute noted that “mortality from all causes is above the expected values for the time of year”, adding there had been “an increase in specific mortality from Covid-19”.
Henrique Oliveira, a mathematician with Lisbon University’s pandemic monitoring working group, told the Lusa news agency the infection rate suggested that hospitalisations in wards and intensive care units (ICUs) would remain high until the end of June.
Portugal logged 2,888 new cases per million people over the seven days to 2 June, while neighbouring Spain logged 373 new cases per million over the same period.
Spain recorded 199 deaths in the seven days ending on 29 March, down from 260 the week before. The percentage of Covid patients in hospitals fell from 5.64% to 5.53%, while the proportion of Covid patients in Spain’s ICUs fell from 4.25% to 3.98%.
While most restrictions have been lifted in Spain, masks remain compulsory on public transport and in hospitals, health centres, pharmacies and care homes.
The BA.5 subvariant’s share of cases is also on the rise in Germany, albeit from a lower level. According to a weekly news bulletin by Germany’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, BA.5’s share of cases has approximately doubled every week over the last month, from 0.2% of cases at the end of April to 5.2% by 22 May.
Omicron BA.2 remains the dominant subvariant in Germany, with a share of 96%. The overall number of confirmed cases of Covid infections in Europe’s largest economy has been declining steadily since the end of March. On Thursday, Germany logged 46,327 new confirmed infections and 124 people who died of, or with, the virus.
“The very infectious variant BA.4/BA.5 is on the march here too,” said German health minister, Karl Lauterbach, on Twitter. “This could become the next wave in the autumn.” The heads of Germany’s 16 states gathered on Thursday to discuss measures that could be put in place to counteract a spike in cases later in the year, which they said would exclude large-scale closures of schools and nurseries.
“Corona is not over, as is shown by the heavy Omicron outbreak in Portugal,” said Frank Ulrich Montgomery, the chairman of World Medical Association, in an interview with Rheinische Post newspaper.
Mask-wearing requirements have been dropped in most places other than on public transport and in hospitals, and while rapid-tests in German cities are to remain free until at least the end of the month, few places require proof of a negative test to allow entry.