Across Europe, records for new coronavirus infections are falling by the day as the Omicron variant tears through populations with a swiftness outpacing anything witnessed over the past two years of the pandemic.
Like the United States, which recorded a new high in daily cases on Tuesday, European nations are struggling against an onslaught of infections from a virus that shows no sign of going away. Britain, Denmark, France, Greece and Italy all set records for new daily cases this week, and in each country, health officials suspect that Omicron is driving the infections.
While there are early indications that the variant might be milder than previous versions of the virus — with vaccinations, boosters and previous infections all offering some protection against serious illness and death — the surge of infections is sowing its own chaos, as people scramble to obtain tests, businesses grapple with staff shortages and New Year’s festivities are thrown into question.
In England and Northern Ireland on Wednesday, there were no P.C.R. test appointments available to book online, and around midday, many people reported that none were available to order online through the British government’s health services. People are showing up at pharmacies to pick up quick lateral flow tests, according to industry representatives, but are often leaving empty-handed.
In France, which set a record of 208,000 new daily cases on Wednesday, the most recorded in any European country since the pandemic began, the health minister, Olivier Véran, said the increase was “dizzying.”
“This means that 24 hours a day, day and night, every second in our country, two French people are diagnosed positive,” he said, according to Reuters.
In Spain — which is reporting roughly 100,000 daily infections for the first time in the pandemic — contact tracing efforts are being overwhelmed and people are lining up outside hospitals urgently seeking tests so they can be approved for medical leave. Although Spain is not seeing a sharp rise in people needing intensive care, Mario Fontán of the Spanish Epidemiology Society said that concerns over infection were rising.
“A sensation of greater chaos has been created compared to the severity that the clinical picture requires,” he told the Spanish news media.
Portugal had one of the most successful vaccination campaigns in the world, reaching nearly every person eligible and driving down the toll wrought by the Delta variant. But infections are climbing again, with the health minister, Marta Temido, warning that the number of infections could double every eight days.
Even in the Netherlands, which nearly two weeks ago became the only country in Europe to reimpose a nationwide lockdown, Omicron is spreading, causing more than 50 percent of infections in the past week, replacing Delta as the dominant variant, according to the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.
Since data on hospitalizations lags behind reports of infection, scientists caution that it is too soon to gauge the Omicron wave’s effect on health care systems. At the moment, none of the nations in Europe setting records for infections are reporting a precipitous rise in hospitalizations, although the surge is only a few weeks old.
Because Omicron appears to have been spreading in Britain a few weeks ahead of most nations, health experts are looking there for signs of the variant’s severity. England recorded 117,093 cases on Tuesday, a new high, but the number of people needing intensive care remains below January’s peak.
Raphael Minder and Megan Specia contributed reporting.