In Munich, normally brimming with boisterous crowds for Oktoberfest this month, the authorities just banned gatherings of more than five people. In Marseille, France, all bars and restaurants will be closed next Monday. In London, where the government spent weeks encouraging workers to return to the city’s deserted skyscrapers, it is now urging them to work from home.
Summer ended in Europe this week with a heavy thud amid signs that a spike in virus cases might send another wave of patients into hospitals. Officials across Europe fear a repeat of the harrowing scenes from last spring, when the virus swamped intensive care units in countries like Italy and Spain.
But just how imminent is the peril?
As they try desperately to curb a second wave of the virus, European leaders are dealing with a confusing, fast-changing situation, with conflicting evidence on how quickly new virus cases are translating into hospital admissions.
In Spain, where new cases have surged to more than 10,000 a day, hospitals in Madrid are close to capacity and the government said it was preparing to reopen field hospitals in hotels and in the city’s largest exhibition center. Yet in France, which reported 66,000 new cases over the last seven days, hospital admissions and deaths, while also rising, are going up much more slowly.
Some experts argue that this shows the virus has lost potency since it first arrived in Europe, or that it is now infecting mostly younger people, who are less likely to experience severe symptoms. Others say it is a testament to social distancing, the widespread use of face masks, greater precautions for more vulnerable people and better medical treatment.
“It’s not going to be like the first time when we needed to stop everything,” said Dr. Karol Sikora, an oncologist and professor of medicine at the University of Buckingham Medical School. “It’s going to be a slow burn.”