COVID-19 deaths are plummeting and restrictions are easing in the UK and the US, but across continental Europe dread is setting in as a new wave of infections prompts school and cafe closures and brings new lockdowns.

The pandemic’s diverging paths in the different countries can be linked in part to the success of their vaccine rollouts and the spread of more contagious variants in Europe.

Health experts in the US, though, say what’s happening in Europe should serve as a warning against ignoring social distancing or dropping other safeguards too early.

A patient infected with COVID-19 is loaded into a plane heading to a western France hospital, at Orly airport, south of Paris. (AP)

“Each of these countries has had nadirs like we are having now, and each took an upward trend after they disregarded known mitigation strategies,” said Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“They simply took their eye off the ball.”

The result has been a sharp spike in new infections and hospitalisations in several European countries over the past few weeks.

Poland’s rate of new COVID-19 cases has more than doubled since February, straining its health care system and leading to a three-week nationwide lockdown announced on Wednesday for shopping malls, theatres, galleries and sports centres.

Italian police enforce the new lockdown outside the city of Bollate in the country’s north. (Getty)
Nurse Susann Rettberg inoculates a local resident with the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 in Saxony in Dippoldiswalde, Germany. (Getty)

Italy closed most of its classrooms at the beginning of this week and expanded areas where restaurants and cafes can do only takeout or delivery.

The country’s health experts say they’re seeing an increasing number of patients who are middle-aged and younger.

In France, officials imposed weekend lockdowns around the French Riviera in the south and the English Channel in the north, and are preparing new restrictions for the Paris region and perhaps beyond to be announced Thursday.

COVID-19 patients occupy 100 per cent of standard intensive care hospital beds in the area surrounding the nation’s capital.

“If we don’t do anything, we’re heading toward catastrophe,” Remi Salomon, a top official in the Paris public hospital authority, told BFM television.

Serbia announced a nationwide lockdown for the rest of the week, closing all nonessential shops and businesses.

The country of seven million people reported more than 5000 new cases on Tuesday, its highest number in months.

Workers unload boxes of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the Belgrade Airport in Serbia last month. Serbia has gone back into a nation-wide lockdown, with more than 5,000 new cases reported in a single day on Tuesday. (AP)

It comes as the rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine has ground to a standstill in virtually all of western Europe.

France, Spain, Germany, Italy and more than a dozen other countries have paused rollout of the shot, calling it a precautionary measure following concerns that it could be linked to blood clots; decisions that go against the advice of global health agencies.

A few countries have stood by the vaccine – including the United Kingdom, where more than 11 million doses have already been administered, and where real-world data has shown vaccines are reducing infections and hospitalisations.

The actions of European governments have surprised experts, and caused a myriad of questions among people who have had or are in line to get the shot.

Doctor Khizer Hanif prepares the AstraZeneca vaccine at a pharmacy in London. Britain has continued its use of the vaccine as other European nations put vaccinations on hold. (AP)

But the pervading message from health experts is one of calm; when placed in context the reported cases of blood clotting are rare and no greater than numbers would be in the general population, while the vaccine has been proven to work in reducing COVID-19 cases.

“At the minute, I’m just not seeing any reason at all why any country would pause the AstraZeneca vaccine. It doesn’t really make much sense to me,” Michael Head, senior research fellow in Global Health at the University of Southampton, told CNN.

“These vaccines are to protect against a pandemic virus. There is an urgency to the rollout,” he added.

“So pausing a vaccine campaign without a very good reason at this point in time just seems a bad move.”

This content first appear on 9news

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