Hospitals in Turkey and Poland are filling up fast. Pakistan is restricting domestic travel to contain a surge in coronavirus infections. Even Thailand, which has weathered the pandemic far better than many nations, is now struggling to contain a new COVID-19 spike.
The only exceptions to the deteriorating worldwide situation are countries that have advanced vaccination programs, mostly notably Israel and Britain. Even the U.S., which is a vaccination leader globally, is seeing a small uptick in new cases, and the White House announced Friday that it would send federal help to Michigan to control the state’s worst-in-the-nation transmission rate.
The World Health Organization said Friday that it’s concerned about infection rates that are rising in every global region, driven by new virus variants and too many nations coming out of lockdown too soon.
“We’ve seen rises (in cases) worldwide for six weeks. And now, sadly, we are seeing rises in deaths for the last three weeks,” Dr. Margaret Harris, a WHO spokeswoman, said at a briefing in Geneva.
In its latest weekly epidemiological update, the WHO said over 4 million COVID-19 cases were reported in the last week. New deaths increased by 11% compared to last week, with over 71,000 reported.
The increasing infections, hospitalizations and deaths extend to countries where vaccinations are finally gaining momentum. That leaves even bleaker prospects for much of the world, where large-scale vaccination programs remain a more distant prospect.
In Turkey, which is among the badly hit countries, most new cases of the virus can be traced to a variant first found in Britain.
Ismail Cinel, head of the Turkish Intensive Care Association, said the surge was beginning to strain the nation’s relatively advanced health care system and “the alarm bells are ringing” for intensive care units, which are not yet at full capacity.
“The mutant form of the virus is causing more harm to the organs,” Cinel said. “While 2 out of 10 patients were dying previously, the number is now 4 out of 10. And if we continue this way, we will lose six.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan eased COVID-19 restrictions in early March to minimize pain to his nation’s ailing economy. The new spike forced him to announce renewed restrictions, such as weekend lockdowns and the closure of cafes and restaurants during Ramadan, which starts April 13.
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Turkish medical groups say the reopening in March was premature and that the new measures do not go far enough. They have been calling for full lockdowns during the holy Muslim month.
In the U.S. capital, President Joe Biden’s administration outlined how the federal government planned to help Michigan better administer the doses already allocated to the state, as well as expand testing capacity and the availability of drugs. The effort will not include any extra vaccine doses, a move Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sought.
Doses are currently allocated to states proportionally by population. Whitmer has called for extra doses to be shifted to states like hers experiencing a sharp rise in cases.
The death toll in Iran is also rising, prompting new restrictions that will take effect for 10 days in 257 cities beginning Saturday. They involve the closure of all parks, restaurants, confectionaries, beauty salons, malls and bookstores.
Authorities in Pakistan, which is in the middle of a third surge of infections, are restricting inter-city transportation on weekends starting at midnight Friday as part of measures aimed at limiting coronavirus cases and deaths.
Elsewhere in Asia, authorities in Thailand on Friday ordered new restrictions in an effort to contain a growing coronavirus outbreak just days before the country’s traditional Songkran New Year’s holiday, when millions of people travel.
Japan, meanwhile, announced tougher measures ahead of the Summer Olympics.
In Germany, Poland and other countries in the 27-member European Union, vaccination programs are finally ramping up after a slow start in the first three months of the year due to delivery shortages.
Thousands of German medical practices joined the vaccination campaign this week. That helped Germany reach its second consecutive daily record on Thursday of almost 720,000 doses administered — meaning that 14.7% of the population has now received at least one dose and 5.8% have received both shots.
Yet German health officials are warning of a steep rise in intensive care patients and are calling for stronger action to contain infections.
Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany’s disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said nearly 4,500 COVID-19 patients are receiving intensive care, with the number increasing by 700 over the past week — a 20% rise.
Neighboring Poland is also seeing a dramatic spike in deaths, and hospitals have been forced to turn away cancer and other patients as ICU and other hospital beds are taken by COVID-19 patients. Hospitalizations of virus patients there have jumped 20% in the past two weeks.
Harris, from the WHO, said the world knows how to fight these surges. She cited good news from the U.K., where new coronavirus cases dropped 60% in March amid a strong vaccination program, “but we have to do it all.”
“We have to keep on social distancing. We have to avoid indoor crowded settings. We have to keep wearing the masks, even if vaccinated,” she said. “People are misunderstanding, seeming to think that vaccination will stop transmission. That is not the case. We need to bring down the transmission while giving the vaccination the chance to stop the severe disease.”