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A patient infected with COVID-19 is treated at one of the intensive-care units at the University Hospital of Torrejon, in Spain, on Oct. 6, 2020.

The Associated Press

France announced its second national lockdown since the spring to prevent surging COVID-19 cases from overwhelming its healthcare system and pushing its death toll back up to tragic levels. The move came only hours after Germany put a semi-lockdown into place.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the lockdown Wednesday night, and said it will last until Dec. 1. "The virus is circulating in France at a speed that even the most pessimistic forecast didn’t foresee,” he said in in a televised address. “The measures we’ve taken have turned out to be insufficient to counter a wave that’s affecting all Europe.”

The new lockdown will be nearly as strict as the two-month lockdown that began in March. The stay-at-home orders will begin on Friday and stay in place until the start of December. People will be allowed to leave their homes only to shop for food and medicines, visit doctors or exercise for a maximum of one hour a day. But schools will remain open.

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Other countries are likely to follow France’s move because the European pandemic death tally is suddenly soaring after weeks of slow increases, alarming governments whose hospital intensive-care units are filling up fast.

In recent days, Italy, France, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Russia and other countries have reported sharp increases in pandemic fatalities. On Tuesday, France reported 522 deaths, the most since late April, though the figure fell to 244 on Wednesday. Britain recorded 367 deaths on Tuesday, the most since May, and 310 deaths on Wednesday. Italy saw 221 deaths on Tuesday, also the most since May, and 205 deaths on next day.

The World Health Organization on Tuesday said European COVID-19 deaths are up 35 per cent over the previous week; new fatalities in Europe accounted for almost a third of the global total. “The number of new cases and deaths in the European region are increasing exponentially,” the WHO said, even if the proportion of deaths to cases remains relatively low for now.

Across Europe, the number of daily deaths plummeted in the summer. Italy saw fewer than 10 fatalities a day in July and August, when the country, site of one of the world’s longest and tightest lockdowns, almost entirely eliminated community transmission. At the very peak of the crisis, on March 27, 921 deaths were recorded, mostly in the north, and military trucks were used to take coffins to hospitals and bodies to burial sites.

Daily new confirmed COVID-19 deaths

per million people

Shown is the rolling 7-day average

18

16

14

12

10

8

6

France

Spain

4

Britain

Neth.

2

Italy

Russia

0

Dec. 31

March 11

June 19

Aug. 8

Oct. 28

the globe and mail, Source: European CDC;

our world in data (Oct. 28)

Daily new confirmed COVID-19 deaths

per million people

Shown is the rolling 7-day average

18

16

14

12

10

8

6

France

Spain

4

Britain

Neth.

2

Italy

Russia

0

Dec. 31

March 11

June 19

Aug. 8

Oct. 28

the globe and mail, Source: European CDC;

our world in data (Oct. 28)

Daily new confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people

Shown is the rolling 7-day average

18

16

14

12

10

8

6

France

Spain

4

Britain

Neth.

2

Italy

Russia

0

Dec. 31

March 11

April 30

June 19

Aug. 8

Oct. 28

the globe and mail, Source: European CDC; our world in data (Oct. 28)

Even when the infection numbers began to climb in late August and through September, the daily death count, while rising, remained low. Italy, for instance, did not break through 50 deaths a day until mid-October. Factors behind the low fatality rates in the summer and early fall included largely empty ICUs, better care techniques such as the more restrained use of ventilators, the use of antiviral therapies such as remdesivir, which may shorten the recovery times of ICU patients, and the lower ages of COVID-19 patients.

But the galloping rate of new infections in recent weeks is filling ICUs once again. As they reach capacity, the number of deaths is rising. While the actual fatality rate is not as high as it was in the spring, the sheer number of new infections means the overall death count is climbing. The median age of patients is also creeping up, suggesting that the death rate could also increase, as older patients are less likely to survive an infection.

The Sept. 26 situation report by BioComSC, the research group of computational biology at Spain’s Universitat Poltècnica de Catalunya, said the weekly increase in COVID-19 ICU patients in the European countries it measured ranged from a low of 28 per cent in France to a high of 111 per cent in Slovakia. In Italy, it was 53 per cent.

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According to BioComSC, ICUs in Slovenia and Hungary are already at maximum capacity and those in Portugal and Austria are getting close. Italy, Switzerland and France still have ample ICU space, though the safety cushion could shrink a lot as infection rates set new records almost every day.

France has emerged as the new European epicentre of the resurgence. The seven-day rolling average of new cases has increased more than 50 per cent in the past week – Tuesday saw a record 38,278 new infections. The United States seven-day average is almost 70,000, but its population is five times higher. France now ranks third in the total number of European COVID-19 deaths, behind Britain and Italy.

But it is Belgium, relatively speaking, where the renewed European crisis is at its most intense. BioComSC data says Belgium has reached 93.3 deaths per 100,000 population, by far the highest in Europe, followed by Spain, Britain and Italy.

The 14-day “attack” rate – the number of new infections per 100,000 – is highest in the Czech Republic, Belgium and Luxembourg and lowest in Finland, Estonia and Norway. Benoît Misset, the lead ICU doctor at the university hospital in Liege, Belgium, told Agence France-Presse that his unit is already “overwhelmed” and that the Belgian government has said it expects its hospitals to reach the saturation point in two or three weeks.

The surging infection and death tallies in most of Europe have triggered rounds of ever-tighter restrictions. Germany’s partial lockdown will close restaurants, gyms, theatres, pools and cinemas on Nov. 2, and private gatherings will be limited to 10 people. But shops, schools and daycares will remain open as long as physical distancing and hygiene rules are followed.

In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said a full lockdown is possible. The country has the fifth-highest attack rate in Europe. “The numbers remain high and have to go down,” Mr. Rutte said Tuesday, though he suggested he wasn’t prepared yet “to slam on the brakes.”

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