BOCHNIA, Poland (AP) – European countries scrambled Monday to downplay an increase in COVID-19 cases and increase vaccinations in hopes of saving hospitals from being overwhelmed by the pandemic’s latest deadly wave of infections.
The crushing of coronavirus patients has been relentless for hospitals in Poland, where daily new infections hit records of over 35,000 the past two days, and the government ordered new restrictions to prevent large gatherings during the long Easter weekend. France’s health minister warned that the number of patients in the intensive care unit could match levels from a year ago.
But in a sign of the differences from country to country, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that barbershops, gyms and outdoor bar and restaurant terraces could open next week after the country reported progress on vaccines and its recent shutdown. Meanwhile, the U.S. vaccination campaign continued to accelerate, with 40 percent of the country̵
On Sunday, coronavirus patients filled almost all of the 120 beds at Bochnia County Hospital, 40 kilometers east of the southern city of Krakow. One patient, 82-year-old Edward Szumanski, expressed concern that some still refuse to see the virus that has killed over 2.8 million people worldwide as a threat. About 55,000 of these deaths have occurred in Poland.
“The disease is definitely there, and it is very serious. Those who have not been through it, those who do not have it in their family, can mislead themselves, but the reality is different, ”he said.
The more contagious and more aggressive virus variant identified in the UK promotes much of the increase in Europe. Meanwhile, voters in many countries are angry at the European Union’s strategy, but also at their own governments’ handling of the pandemic and the inability to prevent repeated increases in infections.
France’s health minister, Olivier Veran, warned on Monday that the number of COVID-19 patients in the country’s intensive care units could match the level of the first crisis a year ago. On TF1 television, he said the country could approach ICU saturation levels in April 2020, when French ICUs had more than 7,000 virus patients, many of whom were in temporary facilities because demand far exceeded the country’s pre-pandemic ICU capacity.
Veran expressed hope that France’s new infections could peak this week thanks to new partial lockdown measures. After prolonged opposition to calls for a new lockdown, the French government closed schools and closed all non-essential stores nationwide, imposing travel restrictions for four weeks.
“We’re doing well,” Veran said.
The British government announced on Monday that all adults and children will be able to have routine coronavirus tests twice a week to eradicate new outbreaks. The tests are introduced as Johnson announces the next steps in the country’s roadmap out of its three-month shutdown.
The UK has recorded nearly 127,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe. But both infections and deaths have dropped sharply during the lockdown and since the start of a vaccination campaign that has so far given a first dose to more than 31 million people or 6 out of 10 adults.
Authorities in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, imposed tighter locking restrictions following a recent rise in virus cases. All schools in the city of 3 million people will be closed for the next two weeks, and only people with special passports will have access to public transport.
“The hospitals are almost full. The situation is difficult, “said the mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko.
Elsewhere, northern Macedonia has delayed mass immunization amid vaccine shortages as hospitals fill up after record-breaking new COVID-19 infections and deaths last week.
In Greece, struggling to emerge from a deep recession, most retailers were allowed to reopen Monday despite a steady increase in COVID-19 infections. Lockdown measures have been in place since early November, although stores opened shortly around Christmas time. The prolonged closures gathered the pressure on the economy.
Serbia has also eased measures against coronavirus despite a large number of infections and a slowdown in vaccinations. The government on Monday allowed bars and restaurants to serve guests outside with reduced capacity and in compliance with social distance rules.
In the United States, a senior public health official said young people are driving the latest increase in COVID-19 cases, as the rising vaccination rate among older Americans is preventing the most serious cases among seniors.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cited the growing proliferation of variants as well as an increase in youth sports and leisure activities as factors contributing to the steady increase in cases over the past four weeks.
But Walensky pointed to the positive development among seniors, who are the most vulnerable age group. Senior virus deaths have fallen to their lowest level since early fall. More than 75% of those aged 65 and over have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine nationally, and almost 55% are fully vaccinated.
“What we are seeing is both a decrease in emergency department visits as well as hospitalizations associated with the demographic condition,” she said Monday.
More than 23% of all adults in the United States are fully vaccinated according to the CDC.
Many states make vaccines available for younger demographics. As of Monday, every adult in Florida is eligible to receive the vaccine. In addition, the state announced that 16- and 17-year-olds could also get the vaccine with parental permission.
Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press author Michael Kunzelman of College Park, Maryland; Jill Lawless in London; Zeke Miller in Washington; Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, Ukraine; Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia; Constantine Testorides in Skopje, Northern Macedonia; Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece; and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece, contributed to this report.