The Mystery of Europe’s Less Deadly Coronavirus Second Wave

29 August 2020 23:20:00 - Last updated: 30 August 2020 00:42:41

France has just reported its highest number of COVID cases since the lockdown ended and Spain has reported its worst day since the pandemic began. Italy has seen its numbers creep up to levels not seen since the lockdown there ended in May, and Germany has reported its highest number of new cases since April. But despite being slammed by what looks a lot like a second wave of COVID-19, the hospitalizations and death rates are nowhere near the level they were the first time around. 

Authorities across Europe say that’s because the first time COVID came to town, vulnerable elderly people living in closed communities were the hardest hit. This time, it’s young people who caught it on beaches and clubs on vacations and who are mostly asymptomatic. And because of aggressive testing–countries like Italy test all passengers coming in from holiday hot spots—they have been able to isolate cases and stop the spread. With the hospitals no longer overwhelmed, and the gift of history as a guide about how best to triage COVID patients, the second wave is—so far—manageable.

But no one is taking any chances and while full lockdowns are not on the cards, there are plenty of restrictions to try to mitigate the spread. In Paris, the City of Love, lovers will have to kiss through their face masks since they are mandatory in the entire city, with hefty fines for those who bare their faces. In Munich, Germany, beer-lovers will have to get their drinking in early since that city is banning beer sales and public drinking after 9 p.m. Italy now requires anyone in any social square to wear face masks outdoors from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. French officials are also fearful about the grape harvest for their famous Champagne as 100,000 seasonal workers living in confined accommodations could spell trouble.

Several new studies offer hopeful theories that the virus currently circulating around Europe and Asia, where new cases have also not led to a spike in deaths, is not as potent as the first wave. 

One, by Britain’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine , looks at mortality rates in the U.K. where the strategy has been inconsistent from the beginning, but the case fatality rate there has fallen from 18 percent in April to around 1 percent in late August. Statistician Jason Oke said that the reason is not that treatment has been found, it’s that the virus isn’t the same. “This doesn’t seem to be the same disease or as lethal as it was earlier on when we saw huge numbers of people dying,” he said. 

French epidemiologist Laurent Toubiana told BFM-TV that he was baffled by this new wave. “The virus is circulating, but an epidemic without patients, I don’t understand what it is,” he said, noting there was no major uptick in hospitalizations despite France’s numbers soaring. “For the moment, there is no major sign of crisis, for the moment there is no rebound.”

If that's the case, that’s good news as kids go back to school amid a COVID wave at least as bad as the one that shut down much of Europe last March. 

In the coming weeks, Europeans will send children back to school, some, like in Italy, for the first time since March. And everyone will be watching to see if the European approach to back-to-school in times of COVID will be a guidepost or a warning about how not to do it.

In France, which was the first hard-hit European country to send kids back to school before the summer break, is not requiring social distancing when children go back to the classrooms Sept. 1, but everyone over the age of 11 must wear face coverings. 

In Italy, where students never went back to school after the lockdown was lifted, the schools will open Sept. 14 at staggered times and some classes will be held in churches, parks and theaters to ensure safe distancing. Tandem online learning will be offered for any secondary student who lives with a vulnerable family member. Large traditional tables have been abandoned for individual desks in some regions, some created with a saw to save time and money. The Italian education ministry has also suggested that Saturday schooling be offered to allow for schools in tight quarters to stagger days students attend. Students and teachers will be required to wear masks and teachers and other personnel who interact with children must also wear face shields. 

German students will be going back to school in “cohorts”, or groups they hang out with during their free time to keep people in bubbles. Social distancing won't be required within the cohort, but will be in all other situations. Some schools have also removed banisters and other areas children often touch as an additional precaution. 

Spain, which has been particularly hard hit during the second wave, will require children over the age of six to wear face coverings, and bathrooms and other common areas will be cleaned three times a day. 

Even if the precautions work to mitigate the spread among school children who could then take it home to grandparents and vulnerable people, the fear is still that a small outbreak in an area with a weak health-care system could spark another emergency and that death rates could spike like they did in the spring.

Experts aren't yet ready to declare the second wave easier. Ignacio López-Goñi, professor of microbiology at Spain’s University of Navarra, wrote recently that it could be a matter of better record-keeping at the beginning of the pandemic. “Now there are incomprehensible data discrepancies between Spain’s autonomous communities and the federal ministry," he says. "It is thus proving very difficult to find updated data on the number of hospitalized cases and deaths, which are the most important figures we need to interpret the situation.”