Europe is COVID-19 epicenter again as cases surge, WHO says

Customers drink on reopened cafe terraces in Paris, France, on May 19, 2021. (NATHAN LAINE / BLOOMBERG)

BRASILIA / PARIS / LONDON / LJUBLJANA / COPENHAGEN / KYIV / BUDAPEST / WARSAW / BERLIN / PRAGUE – The World Health Organization warned that a surge of coronavirus cases in Europe and Central Asia has pushed the region back as the epicenter of the pandemic.

The outbreak has accelerated in Europe over the last four weeks as colder temperatures lead to more socializing indoors, while many countries have eased restrictions

There are now 78 million cases in the European region, which is more than infections reported in Southeast Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Western Pacific and Africa combined, according to the WHO. Last week, Europe and Central Asia accounted for almost half of the world’s reported deaths from COVID-19. 

The outbreak has accelerated in Europe over the last four weeks as colder temperatures lead to more socializing indoors, while many countries have eased restrictions. The WHO has repeatedly said that the pandemic is not yet over, and that governments should keep public-health measures such as mask-wearing along with vaccinations.

“According to one reliable projection, if we stay on this trajectory, we could see another half a million COVID-19 deaths in Europe and Central Asia by Feb 1 next year,” Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, said at a media briefing on Thursday. He also said many countries will face stress on hospital beds at some point during that period. 

Passengers walk on a London underground platform in central London, Oct 22, 2021 as the Department of Health and Social Care is calling upon eligible people to get their COVID-19 booster vaccinations. (DOMINIC LIPINSKI / PA VIA AP)

Britain

COVID-19 prevalence in England rose to its highest level on record in October, Imperial College London said on Thursday, led by a high numbers of cases in children and a surge in the south-west of the country.

Nearly 6 percent of school-aged children had COVID-19, the researchers found, although there was a drop in prevalence towards the end of the study's period coinciding with the closure of schools for half-term holiday.

Despite that dip, researchers said rates had doubled in older groups compared to September, a concerning sign as the government races to give booster shots to the most vulnerable.

"We did see a doubling in that group, and clearly that's the worry," Paul Elliott, the Imperial epidemiologist who leads the program, told reporters.

"It's being driven from the young school age but it is going right across the whole population."

The Imperial REACT-1 study estimated overall prevalence at 1.72 percent based on swabs collected between Oct 19-29, compared to 0.83 percent in September.

Elliot said that the figure was higher than the study's previously recorded high in January, though he noted that the study had not been in the field last December, when last winter's wave might have peaked.

The Imperial study found there was nearly a four-fold increase in prevalence in the south-west, the area impacted by an error at a private lab that resulted in an estimated 43,000 people wrongly being given negative PCR test results.

Another 41,299 people in Britain have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 9,171,660, according to official figures released Wednesday.

ALSO READ: UN chief calls for vaccine equity as COVID-19 deaths exceed 5m

Chilean presidential pre-candidate for the Social Convergence party, Gabriel Boric, celebrates his victory during the presidential primary elections in Santiago, Chile, on July 18, 2021. (JAVIER TORRES / AFP)

Chile

Chilean presidential candidate Gabriel Boric tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, sidelining the top left-wing contender from the campaign trail less than three weeks before voters head to the polls.

Boric is in contact with local health authorities over case traceability, according to the candidate’s personal Twitter account. He had suspended activities including a scheduled television appearance on Tuesday and underwent a PCR test after saying he had a fever. 

Boric, who gained prominence as a student protest leader, has placed at or near the top of all new polls. In recent weeks, he has been challenged by the rise of conservative candidate Jose Antonio Kast. 

He caught the virus amid the final stretch of the campaign that will include the last televised debate.

The first round of the presidential election will take place on Nov 21. If no candidate obtains at least 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will be held on Dec 19.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Friday, Oct 22, 2021. (OLIVIER HOSLET / POOL PHOTO VIA AP)

Denmark

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, facing a probe over the slaughter of the country's entire mink herd last year, on Wednesday denied that she knew then that the government did not have legal authority to order the move.

Responding to the rising spread of coronavirus from mink to people, including a new mutated strain, Frederiksen's Social Democratic government in November 2021 ordered all of the country's 17 million minks killed.

The government later admitted it did not have the legal authority to kill healthy mink herds, only those infected with coronavirus, leading to the exit of the minister of agriculture.

Parliament launched a probe in December into whether other ministers including Frederiksen knew of but ignored the faulty legal basis for the order.

"What motive should the government have had for not disclosing the lack of legal basis? Let me make it very clear: I did not know," Frederiksen told a press briefing, offering her most detailed defence so far.

Prior to the slaughter, which left the industry in ruins, Denmark was the world's largest producer of high-quality mink skins, coveted in the fashion industry for their silky-soft character.

Investigators wanted to review text messages sent by Frederiksen and officials in her office but said they had been deleted because the officials set their phones to erase texts after 30 days. The Justice Ministry is working with police to recover the messages.

That probe, which will put Frederiksen on the stand on Dec 9, is set to present its conclusion in April.

Students enter their classes on the first day of school for the 2021-2022 year at Gounod Lavoisier Primary school in Lille, northern France, Sept 2 2021. (MICHEL SPINGLER / AP)

France

Face masks will again become compulsory from next week for French school kids in 39 regional departments where the COVID-19 virus has been ramping up, government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Wednesday.

French health authorities reported 10,050 daily new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, the first time the tally has topped 10,000 since Sept 14.

In another sign the virus is ramping up again, hospitalizations for the disease are up by 84, at 6,764, a rise unseen since Sept 6.

The cumulative total of new cases now stands at 7.18 million.

France also registered 35 new deaths from the epidemic, taking the total to 117,783.

People wait in front of a coronavirus test station at a container in front of the main station in Duisburg, Germany, Oct 25, 2021. (MARTIN MEISSNER / AP)

Germany

Germany reported 33,949 new COVID-19 infections, the highest daily increase since the start of the pandemic last year, ahead of a two-day meeting of state health ministers starting on Thursday.

Countries across Europe have been reporting rises in coronavirus infections, prompting debate over whether to reintroduce restrictions and how to persuade more people to get vaccinated.

The daily number of cases was likely inflated by a public holiday in parts of Germany on Monday that led to a delay in data-gathering. The previous record was on Dec 18, with 33,777 cases.

Helge Braun, chief of staff to acting Chancellor Angela Merkel, said that German states needed to make faster progress in giving older people booster shots.

"That should have happened long ago," he told broadcaster ZDF on Thursday.

As of Wednesday, only 6.7 percent of people over 60 in Germany had received a booster shot, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 248.20 million while the global death toll topped 5.02 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Hungary

Hungary reported a jump in daily COVID-19 infections to 6,268 on Thursday, with the daily tally more than doubling from the middle of last week in a country with hardly any restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government has urged people to take up vaccines and last week announced mandatory vaccinations at state institutions, also empowering private companies to make vaccinations mandatory for employees if they believe that is necessary.

But the government has refrained from making mask wearing mandatory in closed spaces – apart from on public transport and in hospitals – and there are no other restrictions in place.

The Nepszava newspaper reported that the government required hospitals to open new COVID departments as the number of COVID-19 patients had jumped, to 3,366 on Thursday.

Hungary, a country of 10 million, has reported 31,101 deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic but only 5.74 million of its people are fully vaccinated. More than 1.27 million people have received a booster shot.

Women stand at a memorial outside the government house covered with small rocks to remember the victims of COVID-19 in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Oct 18, 2021. (NATACHA PISARENKO / AP)

Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)

COVID-19 deaths and infections have declined across the Americas for the 8th consecutive week, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday, warning that a very high percentage of hospitalized cases now are unvaccinated people.

In North America, all three countries reported drops in weekly cases and deaths, and there has been a notable decline in hospitalizations in the United States and Canada, PAHO said, with similar declines in South and Central America.

The regional health branch of the World Health Organization said 46 prtvrny of the Latin American and Caribbean population have been fully vaccinated, and a majority of countries have already reached the WHO's 40 percent vaccination coverage target set for the end of the year.

"Vaccine inequity remains the biggest barrier to reaching our coverage targets," PAHO Assistant Director Jarbas Barbosa said in a briefing.

Given the limited supply of vaccines, he urged authorities to prioritize the elderly, frontline workers, and people with pre-existing conditions, to protect them and also to prevent health systems from becoming overburdened with severe cases.

PAHO recommends providing booster doses to people who are immunocompromised, including cancer patients, HIV positive individuals, patients on corticoids and transplant recipients.

Barbosa dismissed as "fake news" the view that people who had coronavirus are immune to COVID-19 and do not need to get vaccinated. 

He pointed to a US Centers for Disease Control study published on Friday that found people who are not vaccinated but previously tested positive are 5.49 times more likely to get reinfected than those who are fully vaccinated.

Poland

Poland reported 15,515 daily COVID-19 cases on Thursday, health ministry data showed on Thursday, the highest total since April.

There were 250 COVID-related deaths reported on Thursday. Poland, a country of around 38 million people, has reported 3,060,613 cases of the coronavirus and 77,395 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

Employees of the Federal State Center for Special Risk Rescue Operations of Russia Emergency Situations prepare to disinfect Savyolovsky railway station in Moscow, Russia on Oct 26, 2021. (ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO / AP)

Russia

Russia's daily COVID-19 death toll reached a record high of 1,195 on Thursday amid a surge in cases that has forced officials to impose a nationwide workplace shutdown.

The government coronavirus task force also reported 40,217 new infections in the past 24 hours, including 6,305 in Moscow.

Meanwhile, Moscow will end its partial lockdown on Nov 7, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said, ending speculation the Russian capital would extend non-working days amid a continuing spike in cases. 

“In Moscow, the disease trend has stabilized,” Sobyanin said in televised comments. “The non-working days won’t be extended from Monday.” 

The seven-day moving average of new daily infections in Moscow hit a four-month high on Tuesday, reaching over 7,000, before dipping slightly Wednesday. 

ALSO READ: Poland's total number of COVID-19 cases tops 3 million

Slovakia

Slovakia reported 6,713 new COVID-19 cases as of Thursday morning, the highest daily tally since the pandemic hit last year, data from Health Ministry showed.

The country of 5.5 million has 1,890 patients hospitalized, including 327 in serious condition.

The ministry said that 79% of the hospitalized people were not vaccinated.

Slovenia

Slovenia recorded 3,456 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, up from 1,136 infections a day earlier, the National Institute of Public Health (NIJZ) said on Wednesday. This was also the highest single-day count in the country.

The previous record of 3,428 new cases was set on Jan. 5 this year.

The institute said that 44.8 percent of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests came back positive.

Slovenia, home to 2.1 million citizens, has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the country has recorded 5,102 COVID-19-related deaths. On Tuesday, 18 people died, up from ten a day earlier.

The virus continues to spread rapidly in the country despite the rule that only those who have been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from the virus are allowed to enter most public institutions.

However, the government has been reluctant to mandate another lockdown to avoid hurting the country's export-oriented economy, which it expects to expand by 6.1 percent this year after shrinking by 4.2 percent in 2020.

Anti-vaccine protesters hold placards reading "Say 'No' to COVID-19 genocide!", "Say 'No' to mandatory vaccinations!" and "Say 'No' to experiments on children!" during their mass rally against the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, outside the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv on Nov 3, 2021. (GENYA SAVILOV / AFP)

Ukraine

The total number of COVID-19 cases in Ukraine has exceeded 3 million with more than 70,000 deaths, the health ministry said on Thursday.

The ministry said it had registered a record daily high of 27,377 new coronavirus infections over the past 24 hours, exceeding the previous high of 26,870 on Oct 29.

Ministry data also showed 699 new coronavirus-related deaths.

Ukraine has registered record-high rates of new cases and deaths from the coronavirus in recent weeks, and the government has imposed strict lockdown restrictions to curb new infections.

Several thousand people blocked traffic in the centre of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Wednesday in a protest against coronavirus restrictions and mandatory vaccinations.

Vaccines have become mandatory for some state workers, and in “red” zone areas including Kyiv only vaccinated people or those with negative COVID-19 test results are allowed into restaurants, gyms and on public transport.