NEWS

COVID-19 Cases Surge in Europe and Central Asia as U.S. Reopens for Travelers

Crowds in Nuremberg, Germany, as COVID-19 cases surge

Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Europe and Central Asia are again at the epicenter of the pandemic, now accounting for 59% of COVID-19 cases and 48% deaths globally.
  • The WHO said low vaccination rates and relaxing of social distancing measures contribute to the surges.
  • To avoid a similar resurgence in the United States, experts encourage vaccinations, masking around vulnerable people, and getting tested after potential exposure.

Europe and Central Asia are once again at the epicenter of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The COVID-19 surge either encompasses or threatens regions in Europe and Central Asia, which are now accounting 59% of COVID-19 cases and 48% deaths globally. The situation is of “grave concern,” and could increase deaths in those areas by another half million if left unchecked, said Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe.

The organization has yet to issue the same warning for the United States. Some experts predict that a potential surge would be more regionalized than spreading throughout the country.

What Contributed to the Surge in Europe and Central Asia?

Kluge said the recent surge in Europe and Central Asia is a byproduct of two things: insufficient vaccination coverage and premature relaxation of social distancing measures.

As of last week, the average vaccination rate in the region was 47%. But vaccination rates in individual countries varied greatly, with some reporting more than 70% and others lower than 10%. Kluge noted that countries with lower vaccination rates have higher hospitalization rates.

Vaccine inequity, combined with a lack of trust among certain groups, contributes to low vaccination rates in some areas, Kluge said. Reversing the surge will involve both swift vaccine delivery and comprehensive education on the benefits and risks of the shot, he added.

“It is imperative that authorities invest all efforts to accelerate the pace of vaccination roll-out,” Kluge said. “We need to make sure countries with low vaccination coverage among priority groups increase their coverage.”

Kluge encouraged authorities to offer booster doses or additional COVID-19 vaccine doses to those eligible, such as senior citizens and people who are immunocompromised.

WHO is also advocating for additional defense measures like the use of testing, contact tracing, ventilation, and physical distancing.

William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive medicine and health policy at Vanderbilt University, said that when people forego social distancing requirements, they veer toward a return to the “old normal,” which is not currently a safe place to be. 

The “old normal” involves foregoing masks, not being mindful about physical distance, and frequently inhabiting crowded spaces, he added.

“If you’re not wearing your mask, you’re not doing social distancing, even though you’re vaccinated, you could be contributing to the spread of the virus,” Schaffner told Verywell.

Currently, COVID-19 deaths in Europe and Central Asia are half as high as they were at the peak of the pandemic. This shows evidence that the vaccines are working for those who got their shots, according to WHO.

Should Americans Expect a Similar Resurgence?

Schaffner said it’s unlikely the U.S. will see another wave of surges like those in Europe and Central Asia.

If COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates do rise, he expects the spread would vary by region. Spikes could incur in unvaccinated pockets of the U.S.—such as areas in West Virginia, Idaho, and Tennessee—but not throughout the entire country.

“In states that are highly vaccinated, where people generally are more compliant with masking and social distancing: they’re being more cautious, they’re just more public health oriented,” Schaffner said.

As of November 9, about 58% of the entire U.S. population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Rather than a spike, Schaffner anticipates infections and hospitalizations to only rise at a sustained low-level.

“By and large, it will be a prolonged smoldering of cases,” he said. “The highly vaccinated states will smolder at a much lower level than the unvaccinated states.”

Should You Change Your Holiday Travel Plans?

As of November 8, the U.S. lifted its entry restrictions for vaccinated travelers, clearing the runway for holiday vacationers.

All air passengers are required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding an international flight to the U.S., according to the CDC. The CDC recommends, but does not require, passengers to take another test three to five days after arrival.

Schaffner, who has not seen his son in Berlin, Germany for two years, applauded the lifting of the travel ban and said he’s excited to have a family reunion for Thanksgiving. They will celebrate together as long as his son tests negative before and after his flight. During their gathering, Schaffner is planning for all the family members to wear masks.

“I’m cautious because we have a high-risk person in the family for whom we’re providing care, so we need to protect them,” Schaffner said. “I can’t wait to see my son and I’m happy to see him wearing a mask.”

He encouraged other families hosting overseas guests to celebrate with caution, the degree of which may vary depending on individual circumstances and whether the family has a high-risk relative.

The first priority for everyone is vaccination, he added. After that, people with immunocompromised relatives can incorporate social distancing protocols into their routines or any holiday celebrations. If someone displays COVID-19 symptoms, they should get tested for the virus.

“People should continue to be very cautious,” Schaffner said. “Does that mean grandma and grandpa can’t be with the family at Thanksgiving? Of course they can do that. But everybody who attends should be well vaccinated.”

“You’ve got a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving,” he added. “It’s time to start masking up.”

What This Means For You

If you’re hosting guests from overseas this holiday season, make sure everyone’s fully vaccinated. If you have elderly or immunocompromised family members, practice social distancing measures and get tested if you have any COVID-19 symptoms.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention. COVID-19 vaccinations in the United States. Updated November 8, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Requirement for proof of negative COVID-19 test or documentation of recovery from COVID-19. Updated November 5, 2021.