Officials watch for COVID-19 to stabilize in Europe; rapid growth shifts to other areas

Medical aid arriving by plane in Spain
Medical aid arriving by plane in Spain

Medical aid arriving in Spain from the Czech Republic., NATO / Flickr cc

Global COVID-19 cases continued their steady increase, with a glimmer of hope that activity may soon stabilize in some of Europe's hot spots, but with growing worries about the threat of the pandemic virus and the impact of social distancing measures in India.

The global number of cases pushed well into the 700,000s today, reaching 777,286 from 178 countries, along with 37,140 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

At a World Health Organization (WHO) media telebriefing today, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said the rapidly growing burden on healthcare facilities threatens to overwhelm some health systems, which can lead to deaths from other medical conditions.

The WHO has released guidelines to help countries manage pandemic demands alongside regular essential health services for other conditions. "Babies are still being born, vaccines must still be delivered, and people still need life-saving treatment for a range of other diseases," he said.

A key feature is ensuring an adequate health workforce, he said, spotlighting a United Kingdom effort in which 20,000 health workers offered to return to work. Other countries, such as the United States and Russia, have enlisted the help of medical students and other medical trainees. Tedros also said the WHO had posted detailed guidance for setting up and managing COVID-19 treatment centers.

Hopes grow for stabilization in parts of Europe

Spain today reported 5,085 more cases, down from 6,875 reported yesterday, but lifting its total above China's to reach 85,195. The country also reported 537 more deaths, increasing its fatality count to 7,340.

Italy also reported another drop in its daily case; the 4,050 new infections reported today are down from the 5,217 it reported yesterday. It also reported 812 more deaths, boosting that total to 11,591.

At today's WHO media briefing, Mike Ryan, MD, who heads the WHO's health emergencies program, said it's not yet clear yet if cases are stabilizing, but health officials should see some leveling as fewer people are exposed due to social distancing and movement restrictions.

He said the next issue is how to suppress the rest of disease activity, which will require a strategy and public health measures. "We have to push the virus down, and that will not happen by itself," he said.

Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the WHO's technical lead for COVID-19, added that the lockdowns provide a window of opportunity for public health officials to put a system in place to aggressively identify and care for patients.

Some European countries reported increases today, including France with 4,375 new cases, the United Kingdom with 2,619 more, and Turkey with 1,610.

Humanitarian crisis developing in India

Facing accelerating COVID-19 activity, India's president on Mar 24 ordered a 21-day lockdown for the country, affecting 1.3 billion people.

Over the weekend, the move triggered a massive return of migrant workers to their homes, stranding some without food and shelter, bringing crowds of people to wait for busses, and creating clashes between state and federal policies, the New York Times reported yesterday. Al Jazeera reported today that health workers were spraying migrant workers with disinfectant, sparking outrage.

When asked about the developing humanitarian crisis, Ryan said societal measures are often difficult and can sometimes hurt people. He said lockdown decisions need to be made very carefully and carried out with human rights and dignity in mind, with governments clearly communicating the reasons behind them.

"Lockdowns alone won't work, but for some, they are the only measure they can take," he said, emphasizing that ideally, countries use this time to put surveillance and case detection in place.

India had 536 cases and 37 deaths when its lockdown went into effect; as of today, it has 1,071 cases, plus 29 deaths.

Iran reports steady surge; Japan bans many foreign travelers

Iran, which has reported a steady surge of cases over the past several weeks, reported 3,186 new cases today, along with 117 more deaths, boosting its respective totals to 41,495 and 2,757.

In Japan, government officials announced a plan to ban travelers from the United States, China, South Korea, and most of Europe, Kyodo News reported. The country, with about 2,600 cases, hasn't reported explosive COVID-19 spread, but health officials are increasingly concerned about a rise in cases in Tokyo.

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