Germany, Europe’s best-resourced nation, risks being swamped even after increasing its intensive care beds by a quarter over the summer. Belgium, which had doubled its intensive care capacity, is now preparing for decisions about which needy patient should get a bed.
“This huge capacity we’ve built gave a false impression of security. It gave a higher buffer, but ultimately it only represents a week when you’re in an exponential phase,” said Emmanuel André, a leading Belgian virologist who has advised the government on the pandemic — and has bitterly criticized leaders for acting too slowly this fall.
In retrospect, the warning signs could be seen as early as July, when cases in Europe started ticking up again after the relaxation of spring lockdowns. In absolute terms, the numbers were still tiny. Spanish emergency room doctors enjoyed a respite, after being hammered in March and April. Italian nurses headed to the beach. Central European leaders — among the worst hit now, but back then largely untouched — gathered at the end of August for a triumphant conference to discuss the post-pandemic era.
But the math for exponential growth is as simple as it is scary. When two coronavirus cases double to four, and four cases double to eight, it doesn’t take long for the numbers to reach the tens of thousands — and beyond.
“An exponential phenomenon starts with very small numbers, and it is not tangible for weeks and weeks and weeks for people out there,” André said. “If you look at the numbers, you have very strong indicators early on that things are going wrong, but it is only at the very end that things explode.”
Europe is now feeling the explosion.
The continent reported 1.5 million cases over the past week, the highest yet during the pandemic, the World Health Organization’s Europe director, Hans Kluge, told an emergency meeting of health ministers on Thursday. Deaths rose by a third in seven days. Occupancy of intensive care units doubled in 17 days leading up to Oct. 25 in countries tracked by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
“Europe is at the epicenter of this pandemic once again,” Kluge said.
A week ago, French intensive care beds were half full. Now, they are more than two-thirds occupied, with more than 3,100 covid-19 patients. When President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday announced a second national lockdown — something he and other European leaders have sought mightily to avoid — he warned that “at this stage, we know that whatever we do, nearly 9,000 patients will be in intensive care by mid-November, which is almost the entirety of French capacities.”
Top public health leaders echoed his dire message.
“We are going to have two to three extremely difficult weeks for the health-care system,” Jean-François Delfraissy, the head of the scientific council that advises the French government on the pandemic, told France Inter radio on Thursday. “We can’t allow it to crack. We are in a worse situation than in the beginning