MILAN (AP) – The virus swept through a preschool and an adjacent elementary school in the Milan suburb of Bollate with incredible speed. In just a few days, 45 children and 14 staff tested positive.
Genetic analysis confirmed what officials already suspected: The highly contagious variant of the coronavirus first identified in England was roaming the community, a densely populated town of nearly 40,000 with a chemicals factory and a tire factory Pirelli bike ride 15 minutes drive from the heart of Milan.
“It shows that the virus has some kind of intelligence, even though it is a single-celled organism. We can lift all the barriers in the world and imagine that they work, but in the end, it adapts and penetrates them, “ lamented the mayor of Bollate, Francesco Vassallo.
Bollate was the first city in Lombardy, the northern region that was the epicenter of each of Italy’s three surges, to be isolated from its neighbors due to mutant versions which the World Health Organization says are now fueling a further rise in infections across Europe. Variants also include versions first identified in South Africa and Brazil.
Europe recorded 1 million new cases of COVID-19 last week, a 9% increase from the previous week and a reversal that ended a six-week drop, the WHO said on Thursday.
“The spread of variants is behind the increase, but not only,” said Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, citing “also the openness of society, when this is not done in a safe and controlled manner. “
The so-called British variant is spreading significantly in 27 European countries monitored by the WHO and is dominant in at least 10 according to the agency’s count: Great Britain, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands , Israel, Spain and Portugal.
It is up to 50% more transmissible than the virus that surged last spring and again in the fall, making it more apt to thwart previously effective measures, WHO experts have warned.
“That’s why health systems are struggling more now,” Kluge said. “It’s really at a tipping point. We have to hold on to the fort and be very vigilant.
In Lombardy, which suffered the brunt of the spring push in Italy, intensive care wards are filling again as more than two-thirds of new positive tests are of the British variant, health officials said this week.
After putting two provinces and some 50 cities under modified lockdown, the regional governor of Lombardy on Friday announced tighter restrictions and closed classrooms for all age groups. Cases in schools in Milan alone rose 33% in one week, the head of the provincial health system said.
The situation is dire in the Czech Republic, which recorded a record total of nearly 8,500 hospital patients with COVID-19 this week. Poland is opening temporary hospitals and imposing a partial lockdown as the variant has gone from 10% of all infections in February to 25% now.
Kluge cited the British experience as a source of optimism, noting that thoughtful restrictions and the introduction of the vaccine have helped to tamp the variants there and in Israel. The deployment of vaccines in the European Union, by comparison, is lagging behind, mainly due to supply issues.
In Britain, the emergence of the most transmissible strain spiked cases in December and triggered a nationwide lockdown in January. Cases have since dropped from around 60,000 a day at the peak in early January to around 7,000 a day.
Still, a study shows the rate of decline is slowing, and the government says it will be cautious in plans to ease the lockdown. This process begins Monday with the reopening of schools. Infection rates are highest among people aged 13 to 17, and officials will be watching closely if returning to class leads to a spike in infections.
While the British variant is dominant in France, forcing lockdowns in the city of Nice on the French Riviera and in the northern port of Dunkirk, the variant first detected in South Africa has become the most prevalent in the Moselle region, on the border of Germany and Luxembourg. It represents 55% of the virus circulating there.
The South African variant is also predominant in a district of Austria that stretches from Italy to Germany, with Austrian authorities announcing plans to vaccinate most of the 84,000 residents to stem its spread. Austria is also asking motorists along the Brenner route, a major north-south trucking route, to produce negative test results.
The South African variant, now present in 26 European countries, is of particular concern due to doubts about the effectiveness of current vaccines against it. The Brazilian variant, which appears to be able to re-infect people, has been detected in 15 European countries.
WHO and partners are working to strengthen the genetic surveillance needed to track variants across the continent.
The mayor of Bollate has called on the regional governor to immediately vaccinate the 40,000 residents, although he expects to be told the supply is too tight at the moment.
Bollate has recorded 3,000 positive cases and 134 deaths – mostly among the elderly – since Italy was struck a year ago. It was the hardest in November and December, during the fall resurgence, and was completely caught off guard when the variant arrived, slipping through school-aged children before hitting families at home.
“People start to get tired because after a year there is no more light at the end of the tunnel,” said Vassallo.
AP correspondents Jill Lawless in London, Karel Janicek in Prague, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed.
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