Massive COVID Surge Rattles Europe, Putting US at Risk Ahead of Thanksgiving

Trump fans who spend their days yowling about the tyranny of face masks and vaccine mandates should look up from grubbing in the right-wing news trough and encompass what is happening in Austria. “Under new rules announced by the government on Sunday,” reports The New York Times, “adults and minors 12 and older who have not been vaccinated or recovered from a coronavirus infection cannot go outside except to buy groceries, seek medical care or travel to school or work.” The edict will affect some 2 million people, and will remain in place for 10 days.

Yikes, right? That’s some heavy shit right there. Here in the U.S., the majority of pro-science people who have been vaccinated watch in seething frustration as every gain made against COVID is driven backward again by a clump of bitter-enders tap-dancing on our last nerve while holding badly lettered “Stop the Steal” signs. Yet I haven’t heard it suggested here that we stuff those people into their homes and tell them to only come out for work and groceries. Austria has taken “not screwing around” to a whole new gear.

My immediate instinct — and second instinct, and third — is to be horrified by this. No amount of impatience with the war on facts being waged by the anti-vax crowd justifies imposing home detention on an entire segment of the population because they disagree with a government edict… right? Does it matter that it’s only 10 days, for now? Is this the point where we have reached this particular Rubicon? Dare we cross it? Has Austria and any other country that lays down such stringent control measures fully prepared itself for a massive, possibly violent backlash? You can bet your last ragged dollar there would be one here.

Austria, Germany and other European countries have good reason to fear, regardless of how they may choose to act. COVID-19 is once again tearing a swath through the continent, with both infection and death rates rising rapidly. “Case numbers have soared across the continent — more than 50 percent last month — and the worrying trend has continued this month as winter begins to bite,” reports NBC News. “The [World Health Organization] said Friday that nearly 2 million cases were reported across Europe in the previous week — the most the region has had in a single week since the pandemic began.”

Perhaps more ominously, the deadly Delta variant of COVID now has its own variant, designated AY.63. First discovered in Norway back in June, the variant’s variant has since spread across the country. Researchers currently believe AY.63 is no more dangerous than the Delta variant itself, and that vaccines are still highly effective against it. This is good news, of course, until the next variant comes along, and the one after that, and “Does all our stuff still work?” becomes the breathless question of the moment.

This latest European COVID surge comes at a fraught time for the U.S., which just lifted international travel restrictions after 19 months. New rules are in place — inbound visitors must have proof of vaccination and a recent negative test in order to board an international flight — but COVID is COVID, and will find a way. Two possible entry points for the virus are that travelers under the age of 18 are exempt from the rules, as are travelers from some 50 countries where vaccination availability is low.

Also, according to CNBC, “U.S. citizens are not required to present proof of vaccination before departure. However, if they do not, they will have to show proof of a negative Covid test taken within one day, instead of three days for travelers with a Covid vaccination record.”

Here in the northeast, the cold has arrived and put its feet up for another long visit. Large Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings loom, as does the traveling required to bring far-flung families together. Nineteen months of this has left the public wobbly with virus fatigue, and therefore more likely to throw caution to the wind. The vaccinations will help enormously, but if Europe and its far more severe control measures are any guide, another fall/winter wave of infections seems unavoidable. This thing isn’t finished with us yet, and may never be.

As ever, we come to the moment where it is time to sing a few verses of everybody’s least favorite life anthem, “It Didn’t Have to Be This Way.” From Politico:

New emails and documents released by a congressional committee investigating the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic show the extent to which top White House officials interfered in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s efforts to warn Americans about Covid-19.

The emails and transcripts detail how in the early days of 2020 Trump and his allies in the White House blocked media briefings and interviews with CDC officials, attempted to alter public safety guidance normally cleared by the agency and instructed agency officials to destroy evidence that might be construed as political interference.

The documents further underscore how Trump appointees tried to undermine the work of scientists and career staff at the CDC to control the administration’s messaging on the spread of the virus and the dangers of transmission and infection.

The horse has left the barn on this one, but I think Austria has it backward. Instead of locking down the unvaccinated portion of the population, we should have sent Trump and his enablers home instead, and made it impossible for them to foment this massive act of negligent homicide. Water under the bridge, for sure, but imagine the possibilities.

In the meantime, wear your mask if you can, get the shots and boosters if you can, and get your kids vaxxed as well, if you can. Barring the rise of some truly monstrous variant, this winter will be nothing like what we endured in 2020, but I fear it will be bad enough. Over the last seven days in the U.S., infection rates have increased 14 percent to just above 86,000 cases. In that time, more than a thousand people died.

We are not finished with this yet, and it’s time to harden ourselves to this truth. Another COVID winter is upon us, and stout hearts will again be required.