COVID-19 surge in Europe as it heads into winter could bode ill for U.S.

Commuters wearing masks as a COVID-19 precaution arrive at a Berlin transport station.
Commuters wearing masks as a COVID-19 precaution arrive at public transport station Brandenburger Tor in central Berlin on Friday.
(Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)

Winter is coming, and Europe is once again a coronavirus epicenter.

Germany’s beloved Christmas markets are in peril, and its intensive care beds are filling up. Austria is telling the unvaccinated to stay out of restaurants and cafes. The Netherlands is headed for a partial lockdown, the first in Western Europe since summertime.

In Eastern Europe, where vaccination rates are generally low, the situation is far more dire, with surging daily fatality rates in states such as Romania and Bulgaria, which are European Union members. The World Health Organization, which includes Russia in its European region, on Wednesday reported a 10% rise in coronavirus deaths in Europe over the previous week, bucking a trend of declines in most other regions.

Across the continent, European governments are uneasily eyeing a likely backlash if unpopular measures such as strict shutdowns again become widespread, even while weighing possibly dire public health consequences if safety measures are flouted.

Colder weather is driving people indoors, and holiday gatherings add to risks caused by crowded conditions, public health experts warn. The disheartening sense of COVID-19 déjà vu is acute in countries like Germany, where vaccination rates are the lowest in Western Europe and new infections are breaking records.


“It would be advisable to cancel all large events,” Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany’s disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said Friday, cautioning that big indoor festivities could “end up being super-spreader events.”

In Europe, as in the United States, it is largely the unvaccinated who are becoming seriously ill and dying. But breakthrough infections — vaccinated people contracting the disease — and the specter of waning immunity are handing fresh ammunition to vaccine resisters, galvanizing political tensions that populist movements across the continent have sought for months to exploit.

In the nearly two years since the pandemic began, Europe’s waves of infection have often presaged similar suffering across the Atlantic.

Nearly a year after vaccination rollouts began in most advanced countries, Western Europe’s vaccination rates are higher than those in the United States. Fewer than 60% of Americans are fully vaccinated, compared with nearly 67% in Germany and ranging up to almost 88% in Portugal, according to an Oxford University tracker.

Germany, which initially won plaudits for a sober, science-driven approach to containing coronavirus infections, has come to exemplify the painful reversal of fortune experienced by a handful of countries in a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide. The highly contagious Delta variant this year has made dramatic inroads even in countries like this one, which adopted early disease prevention protocols.

Virus hot spots face strains on their healthcare systems, and hospitals in parts of Europe, even if not overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, have fewer resources to devote to caring for people who have heart attacks or get into car accidents — a pattern also seen in U.S. states that are hit hardest.


In Germany, authorities warned that with daily new infection rates standing at nearly 50,000, about 3,000 of those cases would require hospitalization, and about 350 of those patients would wind up in intensive care units that are already filled to capacity. Between 200 and 250 Germans a day are dying.

“We’re worse off than we were a year ago, and we’re now facing a real emergency situation,” Christian Drosten, Germany’s leading virologist and a government advisor, said in a podcast Wednesday. He zeroed in on vaccine hesitancy, citing “15 million people who actually could have been and should have been vaccinated by now.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is heading a caretaker government while a new one is being formed, has expressed public frustration over the 30% of German adults who have declined to be vaccinated, saying they are not living up to collective responsibilities. The long-serving German leader, a trained scientist, bowed out of politics and did not seek a new term in September’s elections.

Her compatriots, Merkel said at a business conference by video link on Thursday, might well consider readily available vaccinations as “a great fortune, a huge achievement of science and technology.’”

But the outgoing chancellor said that needed to be coupled with another sentiment: “a certain obligation to contribute to protecting society.”

The center-left coalition expected to succeed Merkel opposes a national lockdown like those imposed last year, which caused economic hardships for many businesses. But the political grouping made up of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats this week proposed a measure to reintroduce free testing for all, and mandatory daily testing for staff and visitors at nursing homes.

Germany’s neighbor Austria, which has also seen record daily infection rates in recent days, is seeking to differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated people in imposing restrictions. In two particularly hard-hit regions, authorities announced Friday, unvaccinated people will be told to stay home starting Monday except for tasks like work or shopping.

Other European countries are taking a more one-size-fits-all approach. The Netherlands on Friday announced a three-week period beginning Saturday of restrictions including early shutdowns for bars and restaurants and a ban on spectators at sporting events.


As in the United States, Germany is seeing a hardening line between the vaccination willing and the vaccination hesitant. A few celebrities — such as the singer Nena, of “99 Red Balloons” fame, or the soccer star Joshua Kimmich — have come out against vaccines, to the dismay of public health experts who would like to see them serve as role models.

And in a phenomenon familiar to Americans, ordinary Germans routinely express utter incredulity at the views or those in the opposing camp.

“I can’t understand why anyone would rather go around unvaccinated — it really is comparable to seeing people out there as drunk drivers knowingly putting their lives and other lives at risk,“ said Nikola Graff, a 52-year-old gynecologist in Berlin.

Pockets of resistance are strongest in the former East Germany, but not confined to it. Isabel Garcia, a freelance communications trainer from the northern city of Kiel, has no plans to get the shot.

“The pressure has become intense, but it’s counterproductive because I don’t think you can convince people by putting pressure on them,” said the 51-year-old.

Although public health experts around the world say the potential effects of COVID-19 are vastly more dangerous than the risks of getting inoculated, Garcia called the vaccines “experimental.”


In the meantime, many Germans are downcast at the prospect of a winter in which cherished holiday traditions may again fall casualty to the coronavirus.

At a Christmas market in central Berlin, Ursula Bergmann, 62, who operates a little stand, said she feared being forbidden to sell gluehwein, the spiced alcoholic beverage that is a German seasonal favorite.

“The restrictions that could be introduced would wipe out the Christmas spirit,” she said. “Without mulled wine, it’s all pretty desolate around here.”

Special correspondent Kirschbaum reported from Berlin and staff writer King from Washington.