Surging coronavirus cases across Europe and North America are filling intensive-care beds, straining hospitals and prompting some to warn of critical shortages, as the global pandemic takes a worrying turn.

Hospitalizations skyrocketed in more than a dozen countries in Europe, with admissions soaring beyond the peak reached last spring in a swathe from Austria to Portugal. In the U.S., where new daily cases topped a record 92,000 Friday, hospitalization rates have climbed 12% over the past month, with more than one in six inpatients in South Dakota having the coronavirus, government data show.

France, Germany and Belgium will clamp down on movement for at least a month, approaching the stringent lockdowns in the spring as Europe seeks to regain control of the crisis. France reported 49,215 new cases Friday, more than six times the level a month ago. The government plans to spend an additional 2.5 billion euros ($2.9 billion) preparing hospitals for the disease, which President Emmanuel Macron said may cause 9,000 patients to fall critically ill by mid-November.

“We’re seeing increasing transmission throughout much of Europe,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, in a podcast Thursday. “France is right now one of the hottest countries in the world, far exceeding the case numbers we’ve seen on a per-population basis here in the United States.”

Worldwide, 45.3 million confirmed cases and almost 1.2 million deaths were reported to the World Health Organization as of Friday. The U.S., India, Brazil, Russia and France had the most new cases. The global tally jumped almost 18% in the week ending Oct. 19, the biggest weekly increase since March.

‘Sense of Foreboding’

“There’s a certain sense of foreboding when you see community transmission reach high levels,” said Stephen Warrillow, an intensive care doctor in Melbourne and former president of the Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society. A surge in cases typically means intensive-care admissions will increase 10 to 14 days later, he said.

The Covid-19 surge in the U.S. Midwest rose to a record, led by new highs in Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota as the region’s outbreak spread toward both coasts. More than 42,000 Americans were hospitalized nationally with the disease on Monday, the Washington Post said. Utah’s hospitals may begin rationing care in a week or two, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. Colorado health officials warned that rising hospitalizations could soon strain the medical system, potentially filling intensive care units by December or January.

Although most people who get infected have mild-to-moderate symptoms, about 5% of patients will require hospitalization and about 1% will need intensive care, Warrillow said.

“When it just rips through a community, then the numbers are just staggering,” he said. “Intensive care isn’t designed for massive peaks like that. It’s easy to potentially overwhelm your critical-care system even with relatively moderate increases.”

In the U.S., Texas has the most hospitalized Covid-19 patients, with almost 6,000 cases filling 10% of occupied beds, data updated Friday from the Department of Health and Human Services show. Federal and state agencies have opened field hospitals and deployed 1,000 nurses and other personnel to aid El Paso, where more than 40% of the occupied hospital beds have virus patients. Outbreaks are also accelerating in Lubbock and Amarillo, where more than 20% of hospitalized patients have Covid-19.

In eight states, more than 10% of hospital beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients.

Although the caring for patients is “relatively straightforward,” infection-control requirements, including the need to wear personal protective equipment, “makes everything literally twice as hard,” said Warrillow, the Melbourne-based intensive care doctor.

Intensive care units are already strained. In Canada, the ICU at Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital is exceeding capacity due to the surge in Covid-19 patients, CBC reported, citing a memo sent to hospital staff late Thursday.

In Germany, the number of Covid-19 patients requiring intensive care has more than doubled in the past two weeks to 1,696 as of Thursday, with about half on ventilators, according to the country’s public-health institute. About three quarters of Germany’s more than 29,000 intensive-care beds are occupied.

Virus spread in Europe
September, reaching 3,156 as of Thursday. Macron warned that the number could reach 9,000 in two weeks. Belgium and Switzerland predicted hospitals may reach capacity in a week or two.

Poland ‘Stretched’

The Polish government said Friday its health system is “stretched to its limits.” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki asked its biggest state-run companies to build temporary hospitals to add more than 3,000 beds. The government bolstered capacity to more than 22,000 from about 7,500 at start of the month, but says there may not be enough medical staff to care for the extra patients.

The Czech Republic faces a similar staffing shortage even after directing the army to build a field hospital in Prague, prompting the eastern European country to move to coordinating care on a national level.

“Even though we still have sufficient bed capacities, we are starting to lack qualified staff,” Health Minister Jan Blatny told the parliament in Prague on Friday. “Some regions are at the edge of being exhausted.”

Northern Ireland has surge capacity of ICU beds available, the region’s health minister Robin Swann said on Wednesday, even as the number of severe Covid-19 patients hovers close to the highest since May. There are 19 ICU beds available currently, while 99% of hospital beds overall in the region are occupied, according to health ministry statistics.

The situation in Nordic countries is less dire. Sweden said Friday that coronavirus patients were occupying 57 of its 525 intensive-care beds. The Armed Forces, including mobile field hospitals, will be called in if needed.

“We are entering the part of the curve with very high contagion levels and may potentially reach the limits of what the health-care system and what society can handle,” Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, said at a briefing in Stockholm on Thursday.