LISBON, Portugal (AP) – Countries in Europe scramble to speed up coronavirus vaccinations and speed the spread of the more infectious delta variant, in a high-stakes race to prevent hospital wards from filling up again with patients fighting for their life.
The emergency coincides with the summer holidays in Europe, the good weather leading to more social gatherings and governments reluctant to suppress them. Social distancing is neglected, especially among young people, and some countries are removing the requirement to wear masks outdoors.
Incentives for people to be photographed include free shopping, travel and entertainment vouchers, and raffles. The Cypriot president even appealed for patriotism.
The risk of infection with the delta variant is “high to very high” for partially or unvaccinated communities, according to the European Center for Disease Control, which monitors 30 countries on the continent. He estimates that by the end of August, the variant will account for 90% of cases in the 27 countries of the European Union.
“It is very important to move forward with the deployment of the vaccine at a very high rate,” warned ECDC.
The World Health Organization is also concerned. The variant makes the growth of transmission “exponential”, according to Maria Van Kerkhove, its technical manager on COVID-19.
The number of new daily cases is already rising sharply in countries like the UK, Portugal and Russia.
In the UK, cases of the delta variant have quadrupled in less than a month, with confirmed cases on Friday up 46% from the previous week.
Portuguese health officials this week reported a “dizzying” increase in the delta variant, which accounted for just 4% of cases in May but nearly 56% in June. The country is reporting its highest number of daily cases since February, and the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals has exceeded 500 for the first time since early April.
Reports of new infections in Russia more than doubled in June, topping 20,000 per day this week, and new deaths reached 697 on Saturday, the fifth day in a row that the daily death toll set a record.
Still, “no one wants a lockdown,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a briefing, although he admitted the virus situation in a number of Russian regions was “tense” .
In some countries, the virus spreads much faster among young people. In Spain, the national 14-day case notification rate per 100,000 people rose to 152 on Friday. But for the 20-29 age group, it rose to 449.
These numbers have raised alarm bells across the continent.
The Dutch government is expanding its vaccination program to 12-17 year olds to help avoid a feared new wave. Greece offers young adults 150 euros ($ 177) in credit after their first jab. Authorities in Rome are considering the use of vans to vaccinate people at the beach. And Poland launched a lottery last week open only to fully vaccinated adults, with new cars among the prizes.
Portuguese authorities have extended the opening hours of vaccination centers, created new walk-in clinics, called on the armed forces to participate in vaccination operations and reduced the period between taking two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by 12 weeks at eight weeks.
“We are in a race against time,” Cabinet Minister Mariana Vieira da Silva said.
In the fight against vaccine hesitation across Europe, the emergence of variants has fueled public uncertainty about the effectiveness of vaccines. In Madrid this week, Claudia Aguilar, a 58-year-old archaeologist, got her second Pfizer-BioNTech shot in an auditorium that extends her working hours overnight.
Nonetheless, she said she was “not sure I would be really safe” from future variations.
“I mean, I’m a little skeptical that it’s going to do any good,” Aguilar said.
Bartender Yevgeniya Chernyshkova lined up for a shot at Moscow’s GUM department store just off Red Square after the Russian government demanded vaccinations for workers in certain industries.
“Now it’s becoming mandatory and we all understand why – because the third wave of the pandemic started here,” she said.
Fifteen months after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, some governments seem more willing to reward public patience than to think about bringing back restrictions.
Some 40,000 fans attended England’s soccer match against Germany at Wembley Stadium in London last week. In Portugal, new restrictions have been timid, such as limiting restaurant opening hours on weekend evenings.
In Moscow, however, restaurants, bars and cafes on Monday began admitting only customers who have been vaccinated, recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months, or who can provide a negative test within the previous 72 hours. .
France lifted the last of its major restrictions on Wednesday, allowing unlimited crowds at restaurants, weddings and most cultural events despite the rapid rise in cases of the delta variant.
Tiago Correia, associate professor at the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Lisbon, detects a mood of impatience in the public, especially among young people eager to enjoy the hot summer nights.
“People want to get back to normal faster than the rollout of vaccination happens,” he said.
The emerging variants have highlighted the unprecedented scale of immunization programs. ECDC reports that in the countries it is investigating, 61% of people over 18 have received an injection and 40% are fully immunized.
But Dr Hans Kluge, head of the WHO’s European office, warned this week that the delta variant is set to become dominant by August in the 53-country region his office covers. And he notes that 63% of people in that region haven’t had a first jab.
“The three conditions for a new wave of hospitalizations and excessive deaths before the (fall) are therefore met: new variants, vaccination deficit, increased social mix,” Kluge said.
Contributing Associated Press editors across Europe include Aritz Parra in Madrid, Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Jamey Keaten in Geneva.