COVID-19 infections in Europe are getting close to the levels seen in March when the outbreak began its peak phase there, the head of the EU’s public health agency said on Wednesday (2 September), warning governments not to reduce the 14-day quarantine for people infected.
“The virus has not been sleeping over the summer. It did not take a vacation,” Andrea Ammon, head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), told EU lawmakers in the European Parliament’s committee responsible for public health (ENVI).
“We are almost back to numbers that we have seen in March,” Ammon said, adding that this week’s data indicated that across Europe there were 46 cases per 100,000 people.
In March, infections in Europe began growing steadily to reach about 40 per 100,000 people at the end of the month, according to ECDC data, and they kept increasing to around 70 per 100,000 by the end of April.
According to Ammon, the current increase of cases was due in part to more testing.
New cases also concern largely younger people, she said, a new pattern that had resulted in stable hospitalisation numbers, as the illness is more serious for older people who were hit hard in March and April.
However, Ammon said hospitalisations were now growing again, signalling spikes in cases also among the elderly.
The infection rate data, covering the 27 EU countries, UK, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, varied greatly among them – from 2 to as much as 176 per 100,000 people, Ammon said without citing specific countries.
“We are looking to provide some evidence to decision makers on what kind of risks they would take if quarantine was shorter,” Ammon told EU lawmakers.
She cautioned that in 3-4% of cases, infections emerge only after 14 days, which is currently the standard length of the COVID-19 quarantine.
Ammon added that swings in COVID-19 cases will continue as long as no vaccine exists and the extent of the current upsurge will depend on the “speed and thoroughness” of countermeasures.
“There is still only a small part of the population that has been affected by the virus, meaning all the rest is still susceptible,” Ammon told the European Parliament committee.
Ammon added that the reopening of schools in September did not necessarily pose higher risks of transmissions, as countries in Europe that had already reopened them in the spring did not experience spikes in cases.
“Closing the schools should be really the last measure that you take,” she told MEPs.
However, she added it was essential to introduce several key safety measures, including social distancing and frequent hand washing.
In the debate, MEPs stressed that the EU needs a common approach to limit COVID-19 and avoid member states designating other member states as red zones or unilaterally close borders.
Earlier this week, Hungary had unilaterally decided to reimpose travel restrictions on all incoming foreigners from 1 September, after a spike in the number of COVID-19 infections abroad, but allowed a few exceptions for military convoys humanitarian transit, business or diplomatic travel, as well as travellers from Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
This prompted the European Commission to warn on Monday (31 August) that border closures are “not efficient” as measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hungary has registered its highest daily rise of infections, with 365 new cases recorded on Wednesday.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]