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The fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic is sweeping Europe, with few countries spared a worrying spike in cases.
It turns out that extensive vaccination is necessary – but not enough – to contain the spread of the virus, which thrives in fall and winter weather. Countries that largely eased social distancing restrictions over the summer are now considering re-implementing measures to curb the tide of increasing cases and hospital stays.
The vaccination “solves part of the problem, but not everything,” said Hajo Zeeb, professor of epidemiology at the University of Bremen. Vaccination protects against infection, but it’s not foolproof. Equally worrying is the decline in immunity, which is leading countries to resort to booster vaccination. “I think even the public is realizing that it’s not all over,” he said.
POLITICO has collapsed vaccinations, new cases, hospital admissions and deaths in the EU and the UK. The picture that emerges is mixed and one in which vaccination penetration is the main factor in whether the pandemic can be successfully contained. A smart approach to actions such as requiring face masks in crowded environments and vaccine “passports” are a key differentiator.
At one end of the spectrum, a group of countries have achieved high vaccination rates in both their adult populations and older school children. The front runner is Portugal, which has successfully contained low-level infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Are on the other end Countries facing their worst outbreaks since the pandemic began in spring 2020. With only a fraction of their adult populations vaccinated, COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire in Bulgaria and Romania, driving their health systems to collapse.
Here is a list of the four groups:
The high flyers: The success of vaccination campaigns in countries like Portugal, Malta and Spain – where 80 percent or more of the population are fully vaccinated – leads directly to very low incidence, death and hospitalization.
Could do better: Countries like the UK, Germany and Austria have hit vaccination rates in the 60 to mid-70 percent range – not enough to stop the surge in new cases. The easing of restrictions in the UK has also been a strong driver of new infections.
Falling back: The three Baltic nations and some countries in central Europe, such as Slovenia, have some of the highest rates of new cases per million people every day. With vaccination rates in the 50 percent region, much of its population is left unprotected from the virus, and hospital stays and deaths are much higher than those of their western neighbors.
The fighters: The two countries furthest behind in terms of vaccinations are Bulgaria and Romania. Overloaded health systems have contributed to the perfect storm for the current wave of viruses that have seen worryingly high hospital stays.
Above all, it is an “epidemic of the unvaccinated,” said Zeeb. The numbers illustrate this with The high flyers with very low new cases per million people. The effectiveness of vaccination in preventing death is very reassuring. The fighters, Romania and Bulgaria have the lowest rates of fully vaccinated people and new daily deaths, well above any other country in the EU. These numbers are reflected in hospital stays and intensive care unit occupancy. “The best preparation for the fourth wave would have been an effective vaccination campaign,” Romania’s former health minister Ioana Mihăilă told POLITICO.
“All of Europe is facing increasing pressure from the pandemic – in Eastern Europe, where the vaccination rate is much lower than in the West, the health effects are real and intense,” French Health Minister Olivier Véran told lawmakers on Tuesday. Elsewhere, climatic conditions and the spread of a more contagious subtype of the delta variant of the coronavirus fueled infections, he added, “We have every reason to be vigilant.”
Zeeb fears that healthcare systems will not be able to cope with another wave. He said the “extraordinary” situation could not repeat itself over the past year as there are concerns that health systems will again not be able to cope with it.
While vaccination is not a complete solution – it does not completely block transmission – it is now clear that it can prevent serious illness and death. Data from the UK in particular are reassuring. In the UK, cases have skyrocketed and while hospitalization rates are increasing, they have not increased as in previous waves. In much of Western Europe, where cases are on the rise, it is too early to say whether hospital admissions will rise sharply. At the moment, hospital admissions delay new infections.
The new infections may be higher than last autumn and winter, but “certainly not” [higher] on the hospital side, ”said Zeeb. “That is the good news that speaks for the effectiveness of the vaccinations.”
One of the main reasons for new infections was adolescents. Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University London, points out that when schools reopened in the UK, the high rate of community transmission resulted in “explosive growth” in the number of cases.
Among the countries with available data, countries with few new cases, such as Portugal and Spain, also have vaccination rates of over 30 percent among those under the age of 18. the fighter, Bulgaria and Romania have rates no higher than 4 percent. Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Greece, in the Falling behind Category, all have rates below 10 percent and are also confronted with strong infection peaks.
Given the data on cases, deaths, and hospital admissions, overall vaccination rates reaffirm the importance of countries achieving not only decent vaccination rates but rates above 80 percent. What the future could bring, Zeeb sees that the coronavirus is finally moving towards an endemic situation in Europe. “Maybe when spring comes, which is going to drop anyway, we will get more vaccinations [and] have likely moved towards herd immunity in some places, both because of the vaccinations and the infections that have occurred, ”he said.
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