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LONDON— Coronavirus infections among students in the United Kingdom have driven daily caseloads to persistently high levels, a setback that highlights how, despite taking an early lead on immunization, Britain now lags many of its European neighbors.
In August, the United Kingdom started vaccinating adolescents, far later than the United States and Europe, and chose to lift virtually all public-health restrictions for the summer, on the assumption that vaccinations had stopped the fast-spreading Delta strain.
However, the nation is now seeing a surge in Covid-19 infections, fueled by school-aged cases, that shows no signs of abating, contradicting the pandemic’s usual pattern of peaks and troughs.
With winter on the horizon, the government is rushing to expand immunization to school-aged children and provide booster doses to susceptible people in order to minimize the danger that the virus spreads to older age groups, causing another wave of illness and death. Because of vaccination protection and the young age of many of those newly afflicted, hospitalizations and fatalities have remained at a fraction of the levels seen earlier in the epidemic, although being higher than elsewhere in Europe.
According to some experts, the abnormally persistent pattern of infection in the United Kingdom right now may be a preview of a future in which Covid-19 is always there in the background, producing moderate infections in most individuals and serious sickness in a select minority, similar to influenza.
“Perhaps this is now normal,” said Martin Hibberd, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who specializes in emerging infectious illnesses.
With winter coming, the United Kingdom is rushing to expand immunization to school-aged children; last month, a healthcare worker in Rutherglen produced a vaccine.
Andrew Milligan/Zuma Press/Zuma Press/Zuma Press/Zuma Press/Zuma
In midweek, the seven-day average of new daily cases in the United Kingdom was approximately 34,500. Cases peaked at 48,000 in late July, dropped to 26,000 in August, and have been hovering around 30,000 per day since since.
Caseloads, hospital admissions, and fatalities are considerably lower in other parts of Europe, and are generally declining. Many European nations have surpassed the United Kingdom in vaccination coverage, and the majority of them continue to use public-health strategies like social distance that the United Kingdom has largely abandoned, while implementing vaccine requirements that the United Kingdom has not.
After accounting for demographic differences, caseloads in the United Kingdom are outpacing those in the United States. In the United Kingdom, there are about 495 instances per million people per day, compared to approximately 304 cases per million people per day in the United States. On a daily basis, cases across the European Union’s 27 member states average approximately 173 per million inhabitants.
Daily Covid-19 fatalities averaged 41 in France and 55 in Germany during the seven days leading up to Wednesday, compared to 112 in the United Kingdom. After adjusted for population, daily deaths in the United States averaged 1,700, more than three times the rate in the United Kingdom.
In August, young people in north London waited for Covid-19 vaccinations.
Dinendra Haria/Zuma Press/Zuma Press/Zuma Press/Zuma Press/Zuma Press
Infections among school-aged children, who were last in line for vaccination, are driving the current phase of the pandemic in Britain. According to data, children aged 10 to 19 account for 38% of recent infections in England. In early October, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 8% of all high-school pupils in England had the virus, the highest rate of any age group.
In contrast, rates of infection among youngsters have been decreasing in France, where more children are vaccinated and certain control measures are still in place in schools. Approximately 46 children under the age of 10 per 100,000 tested positive for the coronavirus in the seven days ending Oct. 4, down 63 percent from the first day of school in early September. During that time, the incidence rate among children aged 10 to 19 dropped by 71%, to 57 per 100,000.
Control measures in schools, including as mask wearing and isolation for close contacts of an infected individual, have been eased in most of the United Kingdom. Vaccination of 16- and 17-year-olds began in August, far later than in the United States and other European nations, while vaccination of 12- to 15-year-olds began last month.
Because of their low chance of being severely sick with Covid-19, scientists advising the government on the vaccine deployment advised against vaccination adolescents. They were included in the vaccination program when top medical officials in the country decided that missing out on school posed extra health concerns.
In the United Kingdom, most school-aged children are given a single dose of vaccination due to concerns about uncommon adverse effects. Only around 15% of individuals aged 17 and under are completely immunized.
Covid-19 vaccinations’ efficacy has been declining in recent trials, but doctors believe the injections still function effectively. The Wall Street Journal explains what the figures imply and why they don’t convey the whole picture. Jacob Reynolds/WSJ/Jacob Reynolds/WSJ/Jacob Reynolds/WSJ
In France, 67 percent of youngsters aged 12 to 17 have received all of their vaccinations. The figure in Portugal is 82 percent. More than three-quarters of 12- to 19-year-olds in Spain have been completely immunized. In Italy, 62% of the same age group has been vaccinated.
“The issue is that the large, large numbers are among school-age children,” Linda Bauld, a public health professor at the University of Edinburgh, said.
According to statistics from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control and the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project, the United Kingdom’s aversion to vaccinating kids has resulted in many European neighbors surpassing it in terms of completely vaccinated populations.
Around 66 percent of the population of the United Kingdom is completely vaccinated. This puts it slightly ahead of Germany, where 65 percent of the population has been completely vaccinated, but behind France (73%) and Italy (69%). Several European nations, notably Denmark, Spain, and Ireland, have completely immunized their populations. In Portugal, 86 percent of the population has been completely vaccinated.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 56 percent of the population in the United States is completely vaccinated.
Around 66 percent of the population in the United Kingdom is completely vaccinated, lagging behind France’s 73 percent; a café in Paris this summer.
Michel Euler/Associated Press photo
Despite large and persistent caseloads in the United Kingdom, the trend in hospital admissions and fatalities is more favorable, emphasizing the role of vaccinations in reducing severe disease and the young age of most infected people.
Since early September, admissions have been declining, while fatalities have been on the rise since the middle of the month. Admissions peaked at about 1,000 per day, down from 4,200 per day during the deadlier Covid-19 outbreak in January, and are now hovering around 700 per day. In January, there were almost 1,200 fatalities each day. In the United Kingdom, the current seven-day average of new fatalities is 110.
This is more than the number of Covid-19-related fatalities reported on a daily basis in most European nations. Since the United Kingdom began vaccinating its elderly and fragile people ahead of its neighbors, Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, believes decreasing immunity following vaccination may help explain the high number of severe cases. To counteract the danger of decreasing immunity leading to an increase in severe disease, the United Kingdom and other European nations have started giving booster injections ahead of the winter season.
According to Prof. Hunter, as immunity deteriorates, it’s realistic to anticipate the coronavirus to continue to cause illnesses as the pandemic fades. However, when more individuals are exposed to the virus over time, and absent the development of a more virulent version of the virus that can escape immunization, the percentage of severe cases should decrease. Coronaviruses, which cause common colds, infect thousands of individuals every day, although only a small percentage of them get severely ill.
“Once you have some immunity, you are less likely to get seriously sick when you acquire it again,” he said.
This article was co-written by Giovanni Legorano, Bojan Pancevski, Nick Kostov, and Sam Schechner.
Jason Douglas can be reached at [email protected]
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