Threat of lethal autumn in Europe as Covid-19 returns in older population

The median age of diagnosed cases rose to 41 in the week ended Sept. 13, up from 30 a few weeks ago.
As vacations and parties fed a late-summer surge of Covid-19 in Europe, there’s been one reassuring constant: a lower death toll. The latest numbers out of the continent’s hardest-hit countries show the relief may only be temporary.

The virus has started spreading in older populations again, according to data from France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.K. In France, its prevalence among those aged 75 or over more than doubled in the past three weeks.

The shift could be a tipping point as Europe faces another wave of the virus. Rising cases among the elderly, more reports of nursing-home clusters and the number of deaths edging upward are “major warning signs,” France’s public health agency said in a report on Thursday.

“We have a very serious situation unfolding,” said Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, said. For the first time, he wore a mask at the press conference on Thursday. “The September case numbers should serve as a wakeup call for all of us.”

A 75-year-old is 220 times more likely to die of a coronavirus infection than her 27-year-old granddaughter, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In France, Health Minister Olivier Veran pointed to what he called a worrying increase in the number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care. More infections among the oldest people means there will probably be even more hospitalizations and deaths in coming weeks, French authorities said. Because people who are sick usually take a few weeks to get worse, there’s a time lag before new infections begin to cause a shift in mortality rates.

‘Most Fragile’

Veran appealed directly to French seniors, asking them to better protect themselves by cutting back on the number of people they see every day because they are “the most fragile in the face of Covid.”

Data from Italy points the same way. The median age of diagnosed cases rose to 41 in the week ended Sept. 13, up from 30 a few weeks ago. The report noted that the virus is now circulating “even among people of a more advanced age.”

Even in Germany, which has managed to hold its seven-day rate of infections to a low level of about 11.5 cases per 100,000 residents -- about one-seventh the rate of France -- outbreaks seeded by travelers have begun to spread to nursing homes.

Kaufbeuren, a small town in Bavaria, is a case in point. The virus first popped up only sporadically in people who had just returned from trips, Mayor Stefan Bosse said in a video statement earlier this month. “That has now unfortunately changed,” Bosse said. First a single worker at a local senior citizens’ home tested positive. By this week, the virus spread to some 30 residents and staff, according to the Robert Koch Institute.

Authorities must find a way to protect old people without locking them away, French President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday. “We are reinforcing the rules,” Macron said, including making sure nursing home staff are tested. “We know that isolation and solitude are bad for old people.”

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