LONDON — More Europeans are seriously ill with the coronavirus than ever before, new hospital data for 21 countries shows, surpassing the worst days in the spring and threatening to overwhelm stretched hospitals and exhausted medical workers.
New lockdowns have not yet stemmed the current influx of patients, which has only accelerated since it began growing in September, according to official counts of current patients collected by The New York Times. More than twice as many people in Europe are hospitalized with COVID-19 than in the United States, adjusted for population.
In the Czech Republic, the worst-hit nation in recent weeks, one in 1,300 people is currently hospitalized with COVID-19. And in Belgium, France, Italy and other countries in Western Europe, a new swell of patients has packed hospitals to levels last seen in March and April.
“Doctors and nurses could be forced to choose which patients to treat, who would live and who would die,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on Monday. “I am afraid the virus is doubling faster than we could ever conceivably add capacity.”
Many politicians, including Johnson, waited to impose full lockdowns, resisting early signs that the situation was getting worse. Those delays may now be proving costly.
Countries across Europe are scrambling to find solutions. Swiss authorities approved deploying up to 2,500 military personnel to help hospitals handle rising infections in the country, while others like France have postponed non-emergency surgeries. And in Belgium, staff shortages have led some hospitals to ask doctors and nurses who have tested positive for the virus but who don’t have symptoms to keep working.
Even if new control measures are effective in tamping down the spread of the virus, it may take weeks before they ease the burden on hospitals. People entering hospitals now may have been sick for a week or more after they were exposed.
Public health officials face additional hurdles during this wave. Colder weather brings people indoors, which may make the virus easier to spread. And many people have tired of restrictions after enduring them for most of a year, complicating enforcement efforts.
In a tense exchange at the National Assembly on Tuesday, Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, described French hospitals filling up and young patients in critical condition.
“That’s the reality,” Véran said. “If you don’t want to hear it, get out of here.”
Europe’s current wave of infection is due in part to the relative normalcy it experienced this summer. Unlike the United States, where the epidemic rose to a second peak in July and set records this month, travelers moved around Europe, college students returned to campus and many large gatherings resumed, all while the virus kept spreading.
There is hope that no place will experience the level of death that Bergamo, Italy; New York City and Madrid suffered this spring. How the virus spreads is better understood now, and treatments have improved, giving sick people a better chance of survival. Testing has expanded across Europe, allowing countries to identify outbreaks earlier, when they are easier to contain.
But experts say increased COVID-19 patients mean increases in deaths, which have already started to pick up in many countries, are inevitable.