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What Europe's Recent Surge in COVID-19 Cases Means for the U.S.

An illustration of a world map inside a giant purple COVID virus particle.

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Key Takeaways

  • Since reopening, many countries in Europe have seen a spike in COVID-19 cases.
  • The current situation there should serve as a cautionary tale for the U.S. as some states begin to lift COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Experts warn against such “premature declarations of victory” and advise retaining existing guidelines, including masking and social distancing, at this point. 

In the wake of a recent surge in European COVID-19 cases, experts in the United States are warning that the pressure to reopen could fuel a third wave of infections and illnesses across the country.

Large swaths of America, particularly in the South and West, are already moving to lift existing mask mandates and business capacity limits.

“We're already starting to see a little bit of an uptick from our lowest lows [according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center],” Danielle Ompad, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, tells Verywell. “So, yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if there was another surge. I mean, hopefully, it won't reach the same peaks that we had before, but it wouldn't surprise me.”

The COVID-19 Situation in Europe

Leading up to the recent surge, several European countries—including France, Germany, and Italy—had relaxed COVID-19 restrictions. Now, with an uptick in cases, it seems they have suffered for it.

While the latest spike is likely multifactorial, Kenneth Castro, MD, professor of global health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Verywell that the “relaxation of mitigation measures,” along with “the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants” and “incomplete coverage with effective COVID-19 vaccines,” probably played a role.

In an interview with The Today Show on March 20, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said that Europe "went up like us, came back down, plateaued, and they pulled back on their public health measures, masking and things like that. And right now they're going through the beginning of a surge—5 or 10% increases."

Fauci also added that he is "really concerned" that if the U.S. is too quick to declare victory, that the situation in Europe is the "same thing that's going to happen" here.

What This Means For You

Public health policies and recommendations can be informed by non-epidemiological factors. If your town or state lifts its mask mandate, that does not necessarily mean that you do not need to wear a mask. The same goes for social-distancing rules. At this point in the pandemic, continuing to mask up and social distance is still one of the best ways to prevent getting—and spreading—the virus.

The Push to Reopen

Some states have decided not to heed Fauci’s warning. Jerry Cangelosi, PhD, adjunct professor of epidemiology and global health at the University of Washington, tells Verywell that the decision has led to what he refers to as “patchworks of countermeasures and compliance patterns” nationally.

Danielle Ompad, PhD

I wouldn't be surprised if there was another surge. I mean, hopefully, it won't reach the same peaks that we had before, but it wouldn't surprise me.

— Danielle Ompad, PhD

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that policies, including state-issued mask mandates, have been effective at keeping COVID-19 case and death rates down. Despite the research, states have started to relax these mandates.

Between September 30 and March 16, six states lifted existing mask mandates:

  • Texas
  • Iowa
  • Montana
  • Wyoming
  • North Dakota
  • Mississippi

An additional 11 did not have any to lift.

Location Matters

Cangelosi also notes that the hemispheres may play a role, saying that "seasons are changing and that also varies from place to place. It means very different things in Sicily versus Norway."

Additionally, some studies have shown that COVID-19 cases, in tandem with flu cases, seem to peak in the winter and plummet in the summer.

Even still, anyone anywhere can become infected at any time—sunshine and warm weather do not make you immune to the virus.

“Premature declarations of victory [such as] early relaxation of face mask mandates carry the consequence of risking a resurgence of COVID-19 in those communities,” Castro says. “We must ultimately find a balance that enables us to carry out activities of daily living and promote economic growth without having to compromise our health.” 

What the U.S. Can Do to Prevent Another Surge

What can local, state, and federal governments do to prevent another surge like the one Europe is experience? Castro and Ompad both say that leaders can start by looking to other countries that have successfully contained the spread of the virus for guidance. After all, as Ompad notes, “the best way to learn is to observe.” 

“It is crucial for the U.S. to retain an accurate situational awareness of the drivers of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in other countries, as well as identify effective mitigation/containment measures to inform our actions,” Castro says.

According to Castro these actions would include: 

  • Expanding access to vaccines, particularly in vulnerable communities
  • Maintaining personal safety precautions
  • Providing psychosocial support to the general public—ideally, Castro says this support will “facilitate (and incentivize) adherence to quarantine and isolation measures"
  • Intensive surveillance of active SARS-CoV-2 variants, at least one of which appears to be more transmissible and more lethal than the original strain

Keep Masking Up

Ompad calls the push to lift mask mandates “problematic,” and emphasizes the continued importance of face coverings. Ompad also points out that one unintended consequence of the political back-and-forth about public health recommendations is the erosion of “people’s trust.”

Receiving a steady stream of mixed messages from institutions and people in positions of authority does not inspire confidence in their judgment. Considering that, Ompad thinks that "we need to be cautious with rolling back any of these guidelines.” 

“So even though, you know, Texas has said you don't have to mask, and everything's open, that doesn't mean that you should proceed as if that is the case, particularly if you're a person who's at high risk for COVID and COVID complications," Ompad says. "Sometimes these guidelines are not in service of health, they're more in service of the economy." 

Castro puts it plainly: “As long as there is evidence of ongoing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in the U.S., we must continue to implement effective mitigation measures."

Ultimately, you will need to make the distinction between what is permissible and what is advisable where you live. You may find that you should still take precautions—even if they aren't imposed by your local government.

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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