Europe’s fight to contain a second wave of the coronavirus has reached a tipping point.

Months after authorities flattened the curve of coronavirus infections across Europe by imposing some of the Western world’s toughest restrictions on millions of people, the virus has crept back onto the continent. Hospitals are filling up. Bars and cafes are closing down.

This week, Europe overtook the U.S. in a key metric that tracks the virus’s spread while accounting for differences in population size. The 27 countries of the European Union and the U.K. recorded 78,000 cases a day on average over a seven-day period ending on Oct. 12, or 152 cases for every million residents. The U.S. recorded 49,000 a day on average over the same period, about 150 for every million residents.

That is the first time Europe has outpaced the U.S. since the virus’s peak in the spring, when the disease was spreading largely undetected because of countries’ limited testing capacity. Europe has now reached a critical mass of new cases similar to what the U.S. faced in late June when infections skyrocketed from Florida to California.

Europe continues to trail the U.S. in average daily deaths per capita. Over the same seven-day period, the U.S. recorded an average of 2 deaths a day per million residents, double the European average.

Both sides of the Atlantic ramped up testing over the summer, allowing countries to uncover far more cases. But in many hot spots in Europe and in the U.S., the share of positive tests is also increasing, a sign that disease-experts say indicates the virus might be spreading even faster than ramped-up testing programs are showing.

Governments have adopted targeted measures in an attempt to contain the virus without inflicting the economic pain that comes with nationwide lockdowns. European leaders have cracked down on specific towns, cities or demographics, such as young people.

That approach, however, is running up against the cold math of burgeoning caseloads. Countries including France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.K. reported new daily infections in excess of 250 per million people a day—higher than the U.S. reported during its July peak.

“It does seem like we are at a tipping point in terms of infection numbers,” said Flavio Toxvaerd, an expert in the economics of infectious diseases from the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

Winter is coming, and public-health experts say governments need to get a grip on infections or risk overwhelming hospitals with sick patients. High case numbers also increase the workload of contact tracers charged with sniffing out potential carriers and breaking chains of transmission, hampering efforts to control the spread.


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“What all countries are trying to do now, the ones that are in trouble, is buy time, to try to survive the winter. And that means getting the case numbers down from the level they are now to allow their systems to be able to function,” said Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K.

Health experts are also worried about a pickup in the rate of people testing positive for the pathogen. The World Health Organization says countries should aim to do enough tests to keep the share of positive results around 5% or lower.

The share of coronavirus tests coming back positive in France rose to 9% at the end of the September, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, three times the rate in the summer. In Spain, the positivity rate reached 10%. In the U.K. in early October it was almost 3%.

Another sign testing might be missing cases: Statistical modeling using a representative sample of U.K. adults carried out by the country’s statistics agency estimated that between Sept. 25 and Oct. 1, around 17,200 people a day in England were getting infected. The official daily tally for that period averaged 9,500.

The rise in cases has begun to show up in increased hospital admissions. The ECDC said in its latest surveillance report that in 19 European countries, including France, Spain and the U.K., the number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 in early October was around a quarter or more of the level it reached during the pandemic’s April peak.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a three-tier local lockdown system for England that began just after midnight Wednesday.

Photo: Matt Dunham/Associated Press

Some health authorities say that this time around they are detecting cases earlier—when they are less severe—and hospitals are better prepared to treat them.

Coronavirus patients occupy all the 30 intensive-care beds at Madrid’s La Paz hospital, one of Spain’s biggest, according to Daniel Bernabeu, a radiologist there. Still, the hospital has 120 critical-care units with beds usually reserved for patients in postoperative recovery that can be adapted to the needs of Covid-19 cases. The hospital has a total of 220 coronavirus patients.

The first wave of the virus “was a tsunami, it swept us up,” Dr. Bernabeu said. “This second wave is more like a tide.”

A main reason Europe hasn’t experienced a spike in deaths, similar to the one that occurred during the spring, is that the virus has mostly spread among younger people who are less susceptible to it. Older generations with higher mortality rates have managed to keep their distance.

Bars and restaurants owners demonstrated in Marseille, southeastern France, on Oct. 2 against an order to close completely for two weeks.

Photo: NICOLAS TUCAT/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

There are signs, however, that the dam between young and old is under strain. A study led by Imperial College London estimated that around three in every 1,000 U.K. residents aged 65 and over were infected with the virus in early October—an eightfold increase from the level a month earlier. Those aged 18 to 24 were most exposed, with an estimated 12 in every 1,000 of them believed infected. Data from English hospitals shows admissions for Covid-19 are low but increasing fastest among those over 85.

Health authorities blame a flurry of summer social activity for sowing the seeds of Europe’s resurgence. After spending the spring confined to their homes, Europeans were unleashed for a summer of transcontinental travel and revelry without clear rules on social-distancing. They piled into beach bars along the Atlantic and sneaked out to illegal raves in Berlin and Paris.

Since then, governments have imposed new restrictions. France has closed down bars across Paris and other large cities and introduced a requirement to wear masks pretty much everywhere beyond the privacy of home.

Governments around the world are debating the timeline for offering Covid-19 vaccines to the public, as drugmakers speed up development. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains the potential health risks linked to fast-tracking vaccines. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/AP

Spain declared a state of emergency last Friday, in a move that will allow it to extend a partial lockdown on Madrid, where local authorities had resisted fresh restrictions. The new measures—which affect nearly 4.8 million people in the capital and nine surrounding towns—permit travel in and out of Madrid only for essential purposes such as work and medical care.

In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday announced a new three-tiered system of restrictions for England. The strictest measures have been imposed in the city of Liverpool, where the virus is spreading rapidly, with less onerous restrictions applied elsewhere.

Tom Wingfield, an infectious-diseases physician in Liverpool, said that hospitals in his area that are grappling with an increase in Covid-19 admissions are managing without any knock-on effect on routine surgery and other health-care services, for now. ”With bed pressures mounting and a long winter ahead, it is unclear how long this situation will remain tenable,” he said.

Write to Jason Douglas at and Stacy Meichtry at

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