Health experts are warning the United States could be headed for another COVID-19 surge just as we enter the holiday season, following a massive new wave of infections in Europe – a troubling pattern seen throughout the pandemic.
Eighteen months into the global health crisis that has killed 5.1 million people worldwide including more than 767,000 Americans, Europe has become the epicenter of the global health crisis once again.
And some infectious disease specialists say the United States may be next.
“It’s déjà vu, yet again,” says Eric Topol, M.D., founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. In a new analysis published in The Guardian, the professor of molecular medicine argues that it’s “wishful thinking” for U.S. authorities to believe the nation is “immune” to what’s happening in Europe.
Dr. Topol is also editor-in-chief of Medscape, MDedge’s sister site for medical professionals.
Three times over the past 18 months coronavirus surges in the United States followed similar spikes in Europe, where COVID-19 deaths grew by 10% this month.
Dr. Topol argues another wave may be in store for the states, as European countries implement new lockdowns. COVID-19 spikes are hitting some regions of the continent hard, including areas with high vaccination rates and strict control measures.
Eastern Europe and Russia, where vaccination rates are low, have experienced the worst of it. But even western countries, such as Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom, are reporting some of the highest daily infection figures in the world today.
Countries are responding in increasingly drastic ways.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of workers to stay home earlier this month.
In the Dutch city of Utrecht, traditional Christmas celebrations have been canceled as the country is headed for a partial lockdown.
Austria announced a 20-day lockdown beginning Nov. 22 and on Nov. 19 leaders there announced that all 9 million residents will be required to be vaccinated by February. Leaders there are telling unvaccinated individuals to stay at home and out of restaurants, cafes, and other shops in hard-hit regions of the country.
And in Germany, where daily new-infection rates now stand at 50,000, officials have introduced stricter mask mandates and made proof of vaccination or past infection mandatory for entry to many venues. Berlin is also eyeing proposals to shut down the city’s traditional Christmas markets while authorities in Cologne have already called off holiday celebrations, after the ceremonial head of festivities tested positive for COVID-19. Bavaria canceled its popular Christmas markets and will order lockdowns in particularly vulnerable districts, while unvaccinated people will face serious restrictions on where they can go.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, says what’s happening across the European continent is troubling.
But he also believes it’s possible the United States may be better prepared to head off a similar surge this time around, with increased testing, vaccination and new therapies such as monoclonal antibodies, and antiviral therapeutics.
“Germany’s challenges are [a] caution to [the] world, the COVID pandemic isn’t over globally, won’t be for long time,” he says. “But [the] U.S. is further along than many other countries, in part because we already suffered more spread, in part because we’re making progress on vaccines, therapeutics, testing.”
Other experts agree the United States may not be as vulnerable to another wave of COVID-19 in coming weeks but have stopped short of suggesting we’re out of the woods.
“I don’t think that what we’re seeing in Europe necessarily means that we’re in for a huge surge of serious illness and death the way that we saw last year here in the states,” says David Dowdy, MD, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a general internist with Baltimore Medical Services.
“But I think anyone who says that they can predict the course of the pandemic for the next few months or few years has been proven wrong in the past and will probably be proven wrong in the future,” Dr. Dowdy says. “None of us knows the future of this pandemic, but I do think that we are in for an increase of cases, not necessarily of deaths and serious illness.”