Dutch hospital airlifts patients to Germany amid virus surge

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A bright yellow helicopter rose into a blue sky Friday carrying a COVID-19 patient from the Netherlands to a German intensive care unit, the first such international airlift since the global pandemic first threatened to swamp Dutch hospitals in the spring.

The clatter of the helicopter’s rotors as it lifted off from a parking lot behind the Flevohospital in Almere, 30 kilometers (20 miles) east of Amsterdam, was a noisy reminder of how the coronavirus is again gripping Europe and straining countries’ health care systems.

The head of the World Health Organization warned that countries in the Northern hemisphere were at a “critical juncture” as cases and deaths continue to rise.

“The next few months are going to be very tough and some countries are on a dangerous track,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a media briefing from Geneva.

The U.N. health agency had recorded about 445,000 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours and that nearly half of those were from Europe, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said.

“In many cities across Europe, the capacity for ICU is going to be reached in the coming weeks. And that’s a worrying situation as we’re in October,” she said, noting the flu season is about to begin and will likely increase the strain on hospitals. “The worry we have are the numbers of individuals requiring hospitalization.”

An absence of noise was set to underscore the extent of the resurgence of the virus as major cities from Rome to Paris prepared to rein in nightlife with new curfews late Friday, part of the increasingly drastic measures nations are enforcing in an attempt to slow the spread of the pandemic.

In addition to the three overnight curfews declared early in the week by governors of Italian regions including Rome, Milan and Naples, the capital moved to make “nightlife” hours even shorter for young people who tend to hang out in trendy piazzas, carousing for hours without masks as they sip cocktails and knock down beers.

Rome’s populist Five-Star Movement mayor, Virginia Raggi, signed an ordinance putting off limits, until Nov. 13, several gathering spots highly popular for night-time drinking starting at 9 p.m. The crackdown covers landmark nocturnal hangouts including Campo de’ Fiori, a vast expanse in the heart of Rome that doubles as an open-air food market during the day, and Piazza Trilussa, a square near the Tiber River that is usually packed in the evening with rowdy drinkers.

A curfew imposed on Paris and other French cities last week was extended to 38 more regions starting Friday night. A four-and-a-half hour nightly curfew is to come into effect Saturday night in the Greek capital, Athens, and the country’s second largest city of Thessaloniki, as well as several other areas deemed to have high infection rates.

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez publicly appealed for the country to pull together to defeat the new coronavirus.

“We have to step up the fight,” he said in a televised address to the nation which this week became the first European country to surpass 1 million officially recorded COVID-19 cases. Sánchez admitted, though, that the true figure could be more than 3 million, due to gaps in testing and other reasons.

In neighboring Portugal, the parliament passed a law Friday making it mandatory for anyone age 10 or older to wear a mask in public spaces whenever it is “impractical” to keep at least a two-meter distance from others.

Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 41 million people and killed more than 1.1 million, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University. The true numbers are far higher due to gaps in testing and reporting cases.

Restrictions on European daily life even extended to canceling the one-day fall session of the 31-seat parliament on the Arctic island of Greenland after a member of the assembly’s financial committee was in contact with a person who had tested positive.

The Dutch airlift to a hospital in the German city of Muenster came amid soaring rates of infection in the Netherlands, where the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has risen over the past two weeks from 24.58 new cases per 100,000 people on Oct. 7 to 47.74 new cases per 100,000 on Oct. 21.

Flevohospital spokesman Peter Pels said flying patients across an international border was a last resort after other hospitals in the region around Almere said their intensive care units couldn’t take them. The hospital was transferring two patients to Germany on Friday.

“We actually prefer not to move patients because it is very drastic, also for family,” he said. “But to keep the quality and safety of care at a good level, unfortunately it is necessary to move patients.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he called the governor of Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia state to thank him for his hospitality and solidarity in taking the patients. A flight carrying a second patient left the hospital Friday afternoon.

Numbers have been spiking in neighboring Germany as well, with the country’s disease control center saying Friday that 11,242 new cases were reported over the last 24-hour period, just shy of the record 11,278 mark set the day before. The nationwide infection rate over the last seven days rose to 60.3 cases per 100,000 residents, up from 56.2 the day before.

At the same time, the country has more than 8,100 intensive care beds free at the moment, with about 21,500 occupied, according to the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine. There’s also a reserve of around 12,700 beds that can be activated within seven days if necessary.

During the first phase of the pandemic, in the last week of March and first two weeks of April, Germany took in a total of 232 intensive care patients from Italy, France and the Netherlands.

Germany is now also in talks to take in people from the Czech Republic.

In that hard-hit country, the health minister was under pressure to resign Friday after a media report that he broke strict government restrictions and visited a Prague restaurant for a meeting, just hours after announcing tightened virus restrictions.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki appealed to his country to adhere to new restrictions coming into force Saturday that include wearing face masks outdoors, closing primary schools and urging anybody aged over 70 to stay home.

The virus also continues to wreak economic havoc. In Spain — where tourism generated 12% of the gross domestic product and sustained 2.6 million jobs before the pandemic — overnight hotel stays were down 78% in September from the same month last year, the national statistics agency said.

Spain is the world’s second most popular vacation destination, after France, but hotel stays in the first nine months of 2020 were down 71% from 2019, the agency reported.