Europe’s hospital systems are at risk of buckling under the strain of soaring COVID-19 infections that put the continent again at the center of the global pandemic on Wednesday while nearly two-thirds of U.S. states were in a danger zone of coronavirus spread.
With European case numbers that were brought largely under control by the unprecedented lockdowns in March and April now resurging relentlessly, authorities in countries from Poland to Portugal have expressed mounting alarm at the renewed crisis confronting their health infrastructure.
Belgium, struggling with what its health minister called a “tsunami” of infections, is postponing all non-essential hospital procedures, and similar measures are looming in other countries.
“If the rhythm of the past week continues, rescheduling and suspending some non-priority activities will become unavoidable,” said Julio Pascual, medical director at Barcelona’s Hospital del Mar.
In the United States, 32 of 50 states have entered a danger zone with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week, and nationally the country averaged 120 cases per 100,000 people, its highest since a peak in July, according to a Reuters analysis.
A block of states in the Midwest and Mountain regions from Idaho to Illinois were a red zone along with Alaska, denoting rapidly rising infection. The Midwest hit a record on Monday with over 27,000 new infections and hospitalizations also climbed to a record high of 10,830 for a fifth day in a row on Tuesday, Reuters figures showed.
“We are not far from the period of exponential, explosive growth of #covid19 in the U.S.,” said Dr. Leana Wen, former Baltimore health commissioner, on Twitter. “We’ve seen two surges like this before. The difference now is that there are virus hotspots all over the country & the winter is still ahead.”
Similar to Europe, this raised fears hospitals could become overwhelmed like in the early months of the pandemic in the U.S. Northeast.
Boston’s public school system announced that students will shift to remote learning beginning Thursday due to the rising COVID-19 infection rate in the city, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said he will quarantine himself after coming in contact with a person who tested positive for the coronavirus.
In Berlin, German Health Minister Jens Spahn also tested positive after taking part in a cabinet meeting earlier in the day, but the cabinet will not have to quarantine because of its compliance with hygiene and distance rules.
To complicate Europe’s situation, widespread coronavirus fatigue and the frightening economic impact of the crisis have eroded broad public support for the lockdowns ordered earlier in the year to stop health services from being overwhelmed.
Unwilling to shut down their countries again, governments have sought less drastic measures to limit public gatherings and balance the need to keep their economies turning with holding back the pandemic.
According to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), Europe has registered more than 5 million cases and 200,000 deaths, with new cases beginning to spike sharply from the end of September.
While well below levels at the peak of the crisis six months ago, COVID-19 hospital admissions and occupancy are again high – defined as at least 25% of the peak of the pandemic – or rising in 20 countries, its latest weekly summary said last week.
The capacity of hospitals to handle a wave of coronavirus patients, as well as people suffering from cancer, heart disease and other serious conditions, is still vulnerable.
Dutch health authorities said that if the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital wards continues to grow, three-quarters of regular care may have to be scrapped by the end of November, and there were similar warnings from Czech authorities.
“We have hit a wall on clinical beds,” said Wouter van der Horst, spokesman for the Dutch hospital association NVZ.
‘WE COULDN’T GET TO EVERYONE’
As hospital admissions have spiraled, much attention has been focused on intensive care units, which came close to being overwhelmed in many areas during the first wave of the crisis.
Authorities in Lombardy, the Italian region at the center of the earlier wave, on Wednesday ordered the reopening of special temporary intensive care units set up in Milan and Bergamo that were shut down as case numbers receded.
Already, a number of regional health authorities in Germany, one of the countries that dealt with the first wave most effectively, have agreed to take in intensive care patients from other countries.
On Wednesday, authorities in Ireland, where the five-day case average has tripled since the start of October, said there were no longer enough officials to keep its contact-tracing system working.