(CN) — Nearly three weeks after much of Italy lifted a nationwide lockdown, the number of novel coronavirus infections and deaths continues to decline across the country, a hopeful sign the deadly virus is being kept in check.
It's not just Italy. Across Europe, fears that lifting months-long lockdowns would lead to a new wave of infections and deaths have so far not materialized, giving rise to a wave of hope and growing demands for a return to normalcy.
Europe has been the continent hit hardest by the pandemic with a death toll exceeding even that of North America, where more than 95,200 people have died in the United States and about 12,800 in Mexico and Canada.
As of Friday, more than 163,000 people had died from Covid-19 in the European Union and four countries within its economic zone, including the United Kingdom. When Russia and Turkey are added in, that death toll rises by about 7,500.
Hundreds of people continue to die from the virus each day in Europe but the deaths are far fewer than a month ago.
The U.K. is reporting the most deaths and new infections. On Friday, it reported 351 more deaths, bringing its total to 36,393, the most in Europe. The U.K. is also dealing with a large number of new infections with more than 2,000 new cases reported daily.
Elsewhere, the worst is over. In Italy, where 32,616 people have died, the daily death toll has fallen to about 160; in France it's fallen to about 130 and Spain in to 100 and lower. In countries hit less hard by the pandemic, daily death counts have dropped to a few dozen and often into single digits. Countries like Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Norway even reported no deaths on at least one day this week.
The virus, though, is still circulating and infecting lots of people, but the rate of new infections is falling too. In Italy, for example, between 400 and 800 new cases are being detected a day. Germany is reporting about 700 or more new cases a day while France and Spain are finding 500 or fewer new infections a day.
“There is a decrease in cases in all regions,” said Silvio Brusaferro, the head of Italy's National Health Institute. He said even Lombardy, the worst-hit region in Italy, is seeing a decline in cases. “The epidemiological curve is stable and going down.”
Patrick Pelloux, the president of France's emergency doctors' association, told France 2 television his fears about a second wave are diminishing after France lifted a lockdown on May 11.
“The mathematical modeling allowed the possibility of a rise ... with a small peak which was to start now,” he said this week. “But we are not seeing a second wave coming.”
Still, officials remain cautious and warn the disease may surge again.
Andrea Ammon, the director of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, told the Guardian newspaper a second wave is inevitable and that it's a question of “when and how big” it will be.
“The virus is around us, circulating much more than January or February,” she said. “I don’t want to draw a doomsday picture but I think we have to be realistic. That it’s not the time now to completely relax.”
Even though Europe has been hit hard, Ammon said only a small percentage of people have been infected and that up to 90% of the population remains at risk. Someone who is infected with the virus builds up antibodies to the virus and therefore a certain amount of immunity.
A crop of new studies is shedding more light on how many people may have been infected. In Spain, a study published by the government found that about 5% of Spaniards has been infected. The study was based on a sample of about 60,000 people. It found about 11.3% of people in Madrid – the epicenter of the outbreak – have been infected.
A similar study in England estimated 5% of the population has been infected and another study in France by the Pasteur Institute estimated 4.4% of French have been infected.
To avoid flare-ups, an array of strategies are being deployed to keep the virus in check. Masks, gloves, hand washing, social distancing, bans on gatherings, testing and tracking down potential carriers are among those measures.
Quarantines are another method for containing the virus. On Friday, the U.K. announced it will require people arriving in the country to self-isolate for two weeks or face a hefty $1,200 fine.
Europe is also using border closings to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The EU's external borders remain closed to most travelers and travel within the bloc is restricted too. But travel is expected to pick up soon on a continent that relies heavily on tourism. Officials in Italy, Greece, Croatia, Spain and Malta say they want their countries open for tourists this summer.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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