The World Health Organization reported new daily case records worldwide three days in a row last week, with new infections reaching more than 465,000 on Saturday. Almost half of those cases were in the organization’s Europe region. The United States set a new record Friday with more than 82,000 confirmed new infections.
“The pandemic is spreading rapidly again, even faster than at the start of it more than half a year ago,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned in her weekly video podcast.
Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, called trends in both the United States and Europe “deeply troubling.”
“Unless the U.S. and Europe take decisive action to stop the spread of the virus, we could easily see case numbers that eclipse pre-lockdown levels,” she told The Washington Post. “If case numbers get too large, it may be too difficult to meaningfully slow the virus using measures other than shutdowns.”
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the new restrictions as the country reported a record 21,273 cases on Sunday. Beginning Monday, restaurants and bars will be required to close by 6 p.m., and gyms, pools and movie theaters must shut down entirely. The restrictions are the fourth round of tightening this month in Italy, and the most severe since the country lifted its nationwide lockdown in May.
Despite a months-long shutdown in the spring, when the country suffered thousands of deaths, an overloaded health-care system and bodies piling up in hospital wards, it’s clear the fight is far from over.
Italy had 1,208 covid-19 patients in intensive care on Sunday — more than on March 9, when Conte announced the lockdown.
“These are difficult days,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza said Sunday, according to the Associated Press. “The curve of contagion is growing in the world. And in all Europe the wave is very high. We must react immediately and with determination if we want to avoid unsustainable numbers.”
Europe appeared to beat back infection rates during the summer. But as economies have reopened and colder weather pushes people indoors, several countries are now reporting case numbers that are eclipsing records set in the spring.
Numbers have soared in the Czech Republic, which in recent days has requested additional ventilators from an emergency European stockpile, closed its borders to tourists and imposed a new lockdown. The country recorded 12,472 new cases on Saturday; more than 250,000 people in the country of 10.7 million have now contracted the virus.
Spain, which flattened its spring curve with a three-month-long lockdown that started in March, announced new national restrictions Saturday. Under a new state of emergency, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez imposed a national nighttime curfew, banned gatherings of more than six people and gave regional governments the authority to restrict movement. In a speech Friday, he warned of “tough months” to come.
The sweeping national rules in several countries suggest a growing belief that initial efforts by European leaders to avoid reimposing economically punishing lockdowns in favor of regional restrictions focusing on virus hot spots might not be enough.
Increased testing could account for some of the surge in case numbers. The numbers of hospitalizations and deaths have not returned to the levels of the spring in many countries.
But hospitalizations, too, are on the rise. Poland turned its largest athletic stadium into a field hospital to free up capacity just days before the country’s leader tested positive for the virus. Spain’s hospitalizations jumped in the past two weeks by 20 percent nationally and 70 percent in Catalonia, according to Reuters.
Belgium, which has the second-highest infection rate in the European Union after the Czech Republic, reported that its hospital occupancy increased by 87 percent in the past week, as the virus has taken a toll on the country’s health-care workers, teachers and police.
Europe’s Center for Disease Prevention and Control warned Friday that while death rates remain low because transmission has been mostly among younger people, that could swiftly change.
“With high levels of community transmission, the protection of medically vulnerable individuals becomes more difficult and, it is inevitable that more individuals who are not considered medically vulnerable will develop severe disease,” the group wrote in a rapid risk assessment report.
Loveday Morris in Berlin and Chico Harlan in Rome contributed to this report.