Experts: Virus surge in Europe a cautionary tale for US

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FILE - In this March 14, 2021, file photo, a patient infected with COVID-19 is loaded into a plane heading to a western France hospital, at Orly airport, south of Paris. Health experts say the surge in coronavirus cases in Europe should serve as a warning to the U.S. not to drop its safeguards too early. (Jaques Witt/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Optimism is spreading in the U.S. as COVID-19 deaths plummet and states ease restrictions and open vaccinations to younger adults. But across Europe, dread is setting in with another wave of infections that is closing schools and cafes and bringing new lockdowns.

The pandemic's diverging paths on the two continents can be linked in part to the much more successful vaccine rollout in the U.S. and the spread of more contagious variants in Europe.

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

“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 U.S. 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 hospitalizations 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 Wednesday for shopping malls, theaters, galleries and sports centers.

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.