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The number of new corona diagnoses in Europe continues to rise. Meanwhile, with the exception of a few tiny Swiss cantons, an increase is visible everywhere. In the second week of August, this rise was fastest in Spain and Belgium, but France and Austria are now also showing a sharp increase.

On the maps this week it is once again heading in one direction: more and more purple spots that also extend over much larger areas. From France to Croatia, from Poland to Malta. Just the northeast of Europe, as in Finland and the Baltic States, were the only places where new cases were not massively on the rise between 8 and 14 August.

Below is the most recent corona map of Europe which shows the rise in new patients over the past week. This type of dark example has not been seen since the end of May.

Areas with the lowest increase
Areas with the highest increase

Hot spots now color the maps

Even in Germany, Denmark, Austria, and Norway (especially around Oslo), countries where the pandemic has been very quiet in recent months, the summer corona wave is now very much a reality. Percentages are also rising in Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia. Given that those countries were virtually free of corona in the spring, one could even say that the first wave is only now beginning here.

Noticeable are the many more purple-colored patches flaring up in France. This seems to be the fastest increase in all countries. Cases are rising fast, especially around Paris and in the east of France. The Spanish region of Aragon, which turned deep red in the first week of August, seems to have ‘cooled down’ a bit this week. Last week’s corona leader was a little further down the road in the Basque Country, where 2,659 new positive tests were registered. This amounts to 120.9 per 100,000 residents.

The top 20 areas with spikes last week included Madrid, Catalonia, Brussels, Antwerp, the Balearic Islands, and – quite remarkably – wee Malta. Research by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) showed that 30 Dutch people who turned out to be infected stayed on the island in the past two weeks. This put Malta in sixth place after countries such as Belgium, France, and Spain, where many more Dutch people tend to travel to. On the slider below you can see how this week’s map compares to that of a week ago; a world of difference.

Sweden and Italy have the lowest numbers

If we are to believe the diagnostic data, the trend only goes one way: up. The differences between June and July are actually continental in nature. The only odd one out is Sweden. As well as Italy, whereas last spring went completely awry, it now has almost the lowest figures in Europe.

It may feel strange that the infection numbers are back to the March levels, but there is nowhere near as much of a spike in terms of the number of new deaths or even hospitalizations (as yet). On the one hand, this is because more tests are being carried out, which means that more people are registered as infected. Aside from that, it is mainly young, healthy people, who travel a lot in the summer, who are contracting the virus.

This group undoubtedly also contracted the virus in February but remained under the radar at that time. We only noticed the major consequences at the end of March, when for the most part, entire wards of nursing homes suddenly started dying. Furthermore, COVID-19 does not seem to be very lethal within small populations, but small percentages can still turn into worrying numbers if the total number is high enough. If you take the WHO’s estimate of half a percent, you need no less than 1 million infected people to end up with 5,000 deaths. Such numbers seem astronomically high, but there is a good chance that this was indeed the case in the Netherlands back in the spring.

And such deaths, apart from perhaps a mild increase over the past week, and which remains to be seen whether this trend will continue, not much else can be discerned for the time being. Below are a number of graphs and maps from Our World in Data that clearly show this.

More tests, fewer deaths

At the moment, this situation is very different from the spring. Yes, the numbers are increasing and measures seem appropriate, but if these measures prove helpful, the pandemic can be kept under control without vulnerable groups of people being affected. If nothing is done now to stop this rising trend, a new disaster scenario remains a certainty while there are still plenty of infections within a society.

And since the number of tests is not increasing drastically, while at the same time the percentage of positive tests are, as can be seen on Our World in Data test chart (the lower of the three), we seem to be moving closer and closer to a two-minutes-to-midnight situation.

But six to eight weeks might pass before this becomes noticeable in terms of (excessive) mortality rates. Nevertheless, mortality rates in places where there was a lot of testing from the start, such as Denmark, Switzerland, and the Baltic States, are still much lower than in countries that have just come out of the ‘starting blocks’ with their testing capacity, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, which mostly now seem to be well on track.

In addition, regional spreads continue to stand out. This was initially also the reason for making maps on a sub-national level because in many cases the standard maps do not provide a realistic representation of the reality aboveground. Take Germany, for example, where quite a lot of infections are reported in the west, while in the east, the virus has never really played a major role. However, even in a small country like the Netherlands, this spread can be seen on last week’s map.

Regional restrictions and contact tracing

A pandemic doesn’t strike as equally hard everywhere. The very severe restrictions at the national level in March were necessary because the virus could already have spread unnoticed deep into many communities. But due to the high number of asymptomatic carriers and the lack of testing, this just wasn’t noticeable in February. Now that more tests are being carried out, it is much easier to find out where the hotbeds are. Testing thereby provides the key to implementing more local policies that are already in place in most countries.

For now, the west of the Netherlands seems to be taking the most heat and that is also where the measures are most stringent. Bergen op Zoom in particular wants to make their red-colored patch disappear via a number of regional restrictions. But how exactly does the west differ from the north, where some new hot spots seem to be flaring up?

During contact tracing in Dokkum, all kinds of details came out, following two infections at the Appelhof on Terschelling campsite. Hundreds of young people were immediately tested on location there. Contact tracing in Dokkum revealed very specific details. Groningen restricted opening hours after a handful of infections and a supermarket in Twente was closed by the regional security department because of the systematic disregard for the corona rules.

What all these places have in common is that they are located in the ‘four northern provinces’ and have opted for a regional approach. The Groningen UMCG physician Alex Friedrich already told us about this on 22 March. His proactive approach was not appreciated initially. But it seems that this is still the strategy in the north of the Netherlands. In any case, there they take a different approach than the rest of the country does.

From reactive to proactive

For instance, it is a whole other world in terms of recruitment and communication. Whereas in the Randstad region people complain about work pressure and staff shortages when it comes to contact tracing, the Northern Netherlands is bursting at the seams. To be able to cope with the expected pressure, the Municipal Health Service of Groningen (GGD) recently abolished the obligation that contact tracers have a medical background, whereas this is still required in the west.

Does the key lie in a combination of adequate contact tracing and plenty of testing? Not quite. That would not be enough to rid the world of COVID-19. But if you continue to adequately organize contact tracing – with or without the help of an app – then impressively low infection rates like those in Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea may even be possible. As a result, Uruguay and Japan did not actually need a lockdown at all. In all of these countries, this result has its origins in proactive measures and a lot of testing, tracing, and isolation.

The advantage that these countries have is logical. They already went through a good dress rehearsal during the SARS 1.0 epidemic. COVID-19 is spreading rapidly all over the world, except in East Asia. From day one the virus was considered a serious enemy there. With a proactive anti-corona policy, the situation there has remained under control to this day. But this also requires an obedient population that observes social distancing rules and does not seek out crowded places.

Still, perhaps it wouldn’t do any harm, where a pandemic is concerned, to look a little more to the East than to the West.