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Europe's brutal coronavirus surge begins to ease after restrictions

Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Europe is now recording more coronavirus deaths than during its April peak.

The good news: The rate of new cases across the continent has leveled off, and it's even fallen sharply in several hard-hit countries. After weeks of growing fear, there is cause for optimism.

The big picture: Europe's fall spike has far exceeded anything seen at any previous point in the pandemic. The wave of hospitalizations and deaths had lagged behind cases, but it crashed down over the past few weeks.

  • ICUs are at 100% capacity in Switzerland and near that point in France, per the WHO.
  • Continent-wide death tallies have hit record highs over the past few days, though they're less concentrated in particular cities or regions than in the spring.
  • Italy recorded 753 deaths yesterday, the most since April 3, at which time the country was the global epicenter.

Yes, but: Two of the countries hit hardest by the fall surge, France and Spain, have now roughly halved their rates of new cases over the past two to three weeks.

  • Other countries — Germany, Italy, the U.K. — have yet to see such sharp reductions but have seen their rates of new cases level off and begin to fall.

They've managed it for the most part without the total lockdowns seen in the spring.

  • Countries across the continent have either closed bars and restaurants altogether or limited their opening hours. Most now mandate masks.
  • But schools have remained open nearly everywhere, and only a few countries have adopted nationwide stay-at-home orders.
  • The results mirror what was seen in Israel weeks earlier — a second, less stringent lockdown that helped bring cases under control within several weeks.

"The evidence shows that these full lockdowns we underwent in the spring aren't necessary now," says Stephen Kissler, a researcher at Harvard who models the spread of diseases, including COVID-19.

  • They were necessary at the time, he notes, because little was known about the spread of the disease.
  • "We have so much more information now that we can respond a lot more quickly and in a more targeted manner — really just shutting down the types of activities that contribute most to the spread."
  • Kissler points in particular to bars and indoor dining, as well as larger social gatherings.

The other side: The U.S. had been lagging a few weeks behind Europe, but it's now passed the EU in terms of new cases per million people.

  • America's spike is still accelerating. That appears likely to continue, as few states have implemented the types of restrictions adopted in October by countries like France.
  • Cases may level off eventually after Americans see crowded ICUs on the local news and begin to modify their behavior. "Fear is a powerful motivator," Kissler says.
  • But without proactive government action, he says, we're left with individuals "responding to a crisis that has already happened."

What to watch: From analyzing previous pandemics, including the flu, Kissler says the fall spike tends to be the most severe.

  • Case counts will fluctuate in different parts of the U.S. and Europe, he says, but past experience suggests the surge won't truly subside until late January.

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