Hospitals in Americas, Europe under growing strain of COVID-19

The world added more than 2 million new COVID-19 cases in the past 3 days, with health systems coming under pressure in the Americas and in more European countries and China reporting another pocket of local spread, triggering more strong measures.

Worsening situation in Americas region

Over the past week, the World Health Organization (WHO) Americas region reported 2.5 million cases, making up more than half of the global total, Carissa Etienne, MBBS, MSc, who directs the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), said today at a briefing. She added that over the past week, 42,000 more people in the region died from their infections.

The sustained boom in cases is sobering proof that countries are failing to control the virus with their public policies. "I'm particularly concerned for the next few weeks," Etienne said, emphasizing that many hospitals are at or very close to capacity. The city of Manaus in Brazil's Amazonas region is a dramatic example, with its overrun system, but case rises in other Americas countries are also straining hospitals, such as in Mexico City, where most beds are filled with patients sick with COVID-19.

Variant viruses may be playing a role in acceleration, and Etienne urged country leaders to embrace measures that save lives.

In other Americas headlines:

  • Venezuela has sent truck shipments of oxygen to Brazil's hard-hit Amazonas state, according to Reuters, which said the supply is enough for 14,000 individual canisters, which are earmarked for Manaus.

  • Colombia's capital, Bogota, will be under curfew for the next 2 weeks, a measure to reduce the spread of the virus, which has put the city's intensive care unit (ICU) capacity at 93.2% full.

  • Brazilian regulators approved China's Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine and the one from AstraZeneca-Oxford for emergency use, according to Reuters.

Post-holiday spikes in Europe

Though cases have slowed in the United Kingdom, the first country to report a third surge, cases are rising in more European countries.

Yvonne Doyle, MD, MPH, medical director for Public Health England, said today on Twitter that though there are early signs that show the country's measures are working, "We must continue to strictly abide by the measures in place," she said.

Spain—where at least three regions have tightened their restrictions— yesterday reported a record rise in cases over the last 2 days, with nursing homes now delivering second doses to nursing home patients, Reuters reported.

Portugal's average daily deaths rose to a record-high level, and surges cases are stressing hospital capacity, with 664 people in ICUs, just short of the maximum slated for COVID-19 patients, according to Reuters.

Yesterday, France's average daily case number rose to a 6-week high of 18,270 cases, as the number of patients in ICUs topped 2,800 for the first time in 4 weeks, according to Reuters. The country is under a nationwide 6 pm curfew.

In other European developments:

  • Austria extended its lockdown into February, and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz warned that the country has 2 or 3 hard months ahead.

  • Norway is investigating 23 deaths in nursing home residents who died within 6 days of COVID-19 vaccination, according to a statement today from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. It said the fatal cases don't imply that the vaccination caused the deaths, given that a large proportion of vaccinees had severe underlying conditions. So far, the country has vaccinated 43,740 residents, and officials said they are exploring if common vaccine side effects lead to a more severe disease course or if the number of reported deaths falls within the expected range over the period.

Third Chinese province battles cluster

Countries in Asia that have successfully brought down their case numbers are battling stubborn outbreaks and the appearance of new local cases.

In China, a new outbreak in Jilin province in the country's northeast has led to a lockdown for the city of Gongzhuling, which has a population of about 1 million, according to Reuters. The outbreak was sparked by a salesman who was in neighboring Heilongjiang province, which is also battling a cluster.

China's National Health Commission today reported 118 new cases, the seventh consecutive day that illnesses have topped 100. Of the latest cases, 106 are local ones from Jilin province (43), Hebei province (35), and Heilongjiang province (27). Also, Beijing reported another local case.

Taiwan today reported 4 local cases, the most in about 11 months, according to Reuters, which said all of the cases are linked to a hospital outbreak. Officials today cancelled a major Lunar New Year festival to prevent further spread.

In other global developments:

  • South African researchers said yesterday in a video conference that they are worried about mutations in two regions of the 501Y.V2 variant first detected in South Africa that might mean that the virus could evade neutralizing antibodies, a potential problem for vaccine protection, according to CNN.

  • An independent review panel set up by the WHO in September to assess the world's COVID-19 response issued its interim report. It criticized China for not taking stronger actions early in the outbreak and said the WHO should have made an earlier declaration of a public health emergency of international concern. It reported its findings today to the WHO's executive board.

  • The global total today climbed to 95,938,177 cases, with 2,050,154 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

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