Quelle Surprise: Covid Cases Surge in Europe’s Tourism Hot Spots, Just One Month After Grand Reopening

It turns out that a massive increase in cross-border travel — particularly by air — is a great way of spreading an airborne virus. 

“Pack your bags, Europe is opening back up!” That was the message sent out, to great fanfare, just a month ago. Many Northern Europeans, starved for the best part of two years of sun, sea and sand, flocked southward. But unfortunately, it turns out that cross-border travel — particularly by air — is a great way of spreading an airborne virus. The Covid-19 pandemic is once again raging in many of Europe’s vacation hot spots, from Portugal to Spain, to Malta and Greece. Catalonia, from where I am writing this article, is one of the worst hit.

For the first time in over a year and a half, Barcelona, the region’s capital, is crawling with tourists (albeit, thankfully, not nearly in the same numbers as before). But it’s unlikely to last, given that the number of Covid cases is surging to dangerous levels. With an infection rate of 1,160 per 100,000 over a 14-day period, Spain’s north-eastern region boasts one of the five worst rates of contagion in mainland Europe. Infections are expected to peak at the end of this month, by which point the region’s hospitals anticipate having as many as 500 patients in critical condition, said Gemma Craywinckel, the director of public health.

As recently as two weeks ago, the local government’s health secretary, Josep Maria Argimon, was blaming the rising cases on two factors: the “more contagious” delta variant and a surge in social interaction among local people, particularly the young as they embarked on their end-of-school-year trips and made merry during the Sant Joan midsummer festival (June 23). But last week he finally admitted that the recent surge in overseas arrivals had also played a part: “Catalonia’s position as an important tourist destination makes it more likely that an explosive situation can occur.”

Mask Aversion

It’s impossible to know how many of the incoming tourists have been vaccinated and how many haven’t. Based on my own on-the-ground observations, most of them are in their twenties, thirties or forties. Quite a few of them are not wearing masks as they pour into shops and other indoor settings, even though their use indoors is mandatory here in Spain. My wife, a jewellery designer who works in a craft jewellery store in the tourist-heavy barrio of El Borne, has to stop roughly one out of every three tourists that comes through the door. She respectfully but assertively asks them to don their mask. Many are happy to oblige, others somewhat less so.

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” said one happy-go-lucky American yesterday, as he sauntered into the store. “I’ve already had both jabs,” he said, with a touch of pride, to which my wife replied, again respectfully but a little more firmly: “I’ll ask you again: please put your mask on. In Spain it is the law. And just because you’ve had the vaccine doesn’t mean you can’t catch it and spread it to others.”

The fact that this is news to many of the shop’s customers is testament to just how poorly informed some vaccinated travellers appear to be. They genuinely seem to believe that the vaccine grants them total protection from contagion. Perhaps this should come as no surprise given the overly simplistic, often confusing messages they are receiving from their respective health authorities. That includes the absurd notion being broadcast by the US government that the current pandemic is exclusively a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”.

Recent weeks have produced more than enough evidence of breakthrough infections to dispel this idea. In early July, Israeli Health Ministry data suggested the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing infection had fallen as low as 64%, from over 90% pre-Delta. By this week that number had apparently nosedived to 39%. Two possible reasons cited for this are that delta is better than previous variants at evading the vaccine’s immune protection and the rapidly diminishing effectiveness of the vaccine over time. There’s also, of course, another possible explanation: the manufacturers over-egged the vaccine’s effectiveness.

Shifting Goal Posts

The good news, health authorities now tell us as they shift the goal posts once again, is that most cases in vaccinated people tend to be mild and that vaccines still provide strong protection against severe infection, even against the known variants. As the cases rise, they say, hospitalisations and deaths rise at nowhere near the same rate they did in previous waves. And so far, this appears to hold true. According to real-world data from Public Health England, two shots of the Oxford/AstraZeneca or of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine provide 92% and 96% protection, respectively, against hospital admission.

Nonetheless, hospital admissions are surging in the UK, one of Europe’s most vaccinated countries, though occupancy is still much lower than it was in winter. Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, announced this week in a press conference that 60% of the people admitted to hospital with COVID had received two shots of a coronavirus vaccine. He then proceeded to correct himself hours later on Twitter, saying that he had got his numbers mixed up: the 60% figure apparently related to unvaccinated, not vaccinated, people. All said and done, it was hardly a confidence inspiring performance.

Concerns are rising in other places that vaccines may not provide as much protection as previously thought. New data, again out of Israel, suggest that the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in preventing serious COVID-19 infection among the elderly has fallen to 50%, which stands in stark contrast to the data from Public Health England.

“It’s a warning that should not be ignored,” says Dr. Amit Huppert of the bio-statistical unit of the national research body for epidemiology, the Gertner Institute, which conducted the research. “Most of us did not believe a month ago we could be in this situation.”

But some prominent experts are saying the data shouldn’t be taken seriously, reports the Times of Israel:

As the numbers ignite concern among Israelis, even the government’s top expert adviser on coronavirus questioned their integrity. The approach taken could result in a “horribly skewed” outcome, argued Prof. Ran Balicer, chairman of Israel’s national expert panel on COVID-19.
“Any attempt to deduce severe illness vaccine effectiveness from semi-crude illness rates among the yes or no vaccinated is very, very risky,” he maintained.
Infectious diseases doctor Yael Paran told The Times of Israel that she can’t reconcile the figures on serious illness with the much more rosy reality she sees. “What we see in our hospital and around the world don’t support this,” she said. “I think the figures are exaggerated.”
Huppert acknowledged that the statistics have their limitations. “These are early estimations based on small numbers, and there are all kinds of biases in the numbers,” he said. But he insisted that despite the caveats, they still have great relevance.

That relevance could extend to Europe’s tourism industry. If, as Huppert’s study suggests, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine does not protect people from severe infection as much as originally claimed, and if that is also true of other vaccines, while of course unvaccinated travelers are also at risk, we could even begin to see infected tourists being admitted to hospitals. And that would put even greater strain on the health systems in Europe’s tourism hotspots.

A New Wave of Cancellations

That is the worst-case scenario. But even now, things are not looking good for Europe’s all-essential tourism industry, which before Covid struck provided roughly 10% of GDP in France, 13% in Italy and Spain, almost 15% in Portugal and 20% in Greece. A little over three weeks ago, in my article Tourism Begins to Recover in Europe, But Is It Just a Dead Cat Bounce? (apologies to cat owners and lovers alike), I warned that the reopening of Europe’s tourism industry may prove to be short lived. That, unfortunately, is looking more and more likely.

Travel restrictions are quickly multiplying. France and Germany are already cautioning their citizens against travelling to Spain and Portugal. Today (Friday July 23) Germany is expected to place Spain on its list of high-risk countries, together with the Netherlands. That would mean that only double-jabbed travellers will be able to visit the countries without having to quarantine on their return to Germany and could be hugely damaging to tourism businesses in Mallorca, where Germans represent 40% of overseas visitors.

Spain’s tourism industry is already warning of a fresh wave of cancellations. The recent surge in new Covid-19 cases in Catalonia is taking its toll on tourist rentals, as more and more people get cold feet. The situation is likely to get even worse in coming days after the European Union recommended against travelling to Catalonia earlier this week. Europe’s biggest tour operator TUI has also announced plans to cancel holidays to hotspots including Bulgaria, Craotia, Italy, Spain and Turkey as  uncertainty remains over international travel during the pandemic.

If there’s any silver lining for Europe’s tourism industry, it is that British sun seekers are returning to the mainland after a year-and-a-half absence. And they’ve got money to spend. With the school year ending, tour operators and airlines are bracing for the busiest weekend of the year, reports The Telegraph. But given the UK is itself in the grip of a massive wave of Covid infections after its government helped introduce the Delta variant into Europe, this could end up being more of a curse than a blessing.   

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Its been reported in Ireland just yesterday that there has been a sharp rise in Delta cases among young people …. apparently almost all the result of holidays.

    The number of Covid-19 cases related to overseas travel has increased “very sharply” recently, according to Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn.

    He said over 800 such infections were reported in the last fortnight alone, three quarters of them in people aged under 35.

    And this when flights are very much reduced and strong restrictions on travel. It appears that plenty of people still can’t resist it (ironically, the weather has been better in Ireland than in most of the holiday spots, but there you go).

    It really defies any common sense, I really do despair.

  2. Reality Bites

    About those breakthrough cases, it turns out “mild COVID” can be pretty bad.The Slate article below lays out some pretty serious symptoms regarding breakthrough COVID. There is also no real understanding of whether breakthrough cases can lead to long COVID.


    Between breakthrough cases and cold/flu season around the corner, I don’t see how a full return to offices and schools can be sustained. Cold, flu, and COVID symptoms overlap so someone will not know which one they have without a test, something most vaccinated people are strongly discouraged from getting. It boggles the mind how the stupidity continues.

    1. upstater

      I dunno, Slate’s reporter Susan Matthews said her colleague that got the breakthrough COVID infection was well informed. Obviously the colleague doesn’t read NC or it’s wealth of links! And going to a hockey game in an arena with thousands seems particularly risky.

      On another matter, John Authers email this morning has another one of those hectoring “red vs blue state” graphics of infections plotted against vaccination rates, highlighting how smart denentiacrats are. Of course, It ignores poverty, race, ethnicity and most importantly the fact that in the north we’re outdoors socializing far more in sunbelt areas where people are hunkered down in air conditioning. We saw this last summer, didn’t we?

      1. Chris

        There also seems to be a pretty good correlation between geography (states) and their health care and education spending (which correlates to poverty and vaccines), so you could call that “hectoring” too, while you are at it.

      2. neo-realist

        Speaking of going to a hockey game in an arena with thousands, the NHL season starts in October and the Seattle NHL team has pretty much sold out of its games with a waiting list of thousands. Climate Pledge Arena may turn into a Covid Pledge petri dish this season, not to mention many others around the country.

    2. Ahimsa

      Yes, regards breakthrough cases, the critical question at the moment is:

      Is there any vaccine efficacy against Long-Covid?

  3. vlade

    Greece has already stopped Brits coming in w/o a quarantine. Spain may not, but I wonder how long will that last, and I suspect not for long..

  4. The Rev Kev

    Maybe Europe is just trying to hold off long enough until this year’s tourist season is over in August or September. And then they will close all travel down.

  5. Brian Beijer

    In a way, watching this potentially “end of humanity” event unfold is morbidly fascinating. I was certain that climate change would be the end of us, or maybe advanced civilization would just slowly peter out over the next few decades as we gobbled up all resources. I never thought our undoing would come from a virus we would allow to mutate through short-sighted stupidity and greed. With all of the knowledge we have accumulated about pandemics and plagues, both their deadly consequences and means of prevention, one would think that this would have been an easy disaster to avoid. But no, we’re stumbling head long into it in blissful ignorance. I can already hear the response from our respective government leaders, “No one could have foreseen that this…yada, yada, yada.” Unfortunately, enough people will believe them that their responsibility will go unaccountable.

    1. Carla

      “Unfortunately, enough people will believe them that their responsibility will go unaccountable.”

      IMO, belief is irrelevant. There is no accountability. I used to delude myself that the lack of accountability was a feature of life mostly in countries like the U.S., Russia, China — but if Covid has taught us anything, it’s that the utter absence of accountability is global.

  6. Synoia

    It is summer in Europe. In the 1950’s flu epidemics, peak infections occurred between Christmas and Easter.

    That we are getting an increase infections during the Summer is disconcerting.

  7. DJG, Reality Czar

    “I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” said one happy-go-lucky American yesterday, as he sauntered into the store. “I’ve already had both jabs,” he said, with a touch of pride, to which my wife replied, again respectfully but a little more firmly: “I’ll ask you again: please put your mask on. In Spain it is the law. And just because you’ve had the vaccine doesn’t mean you can’t catch it and spread it to others.”

    That brief introduction to himself is about all that one has to know about Americans these days: Puritanical, pushy, willfully unaware of the world around them, conformists addicted to convenience.

    And we’re wondering why the U S of A can’t get its daily numbers under control? This guy wants special treatment–and what if he had walked into a store in which the owner spoke only Catalan? How did he expect to “reach out” to the undeserving native?

    1. juno mas

      In my experience, most metropolitan euro’s are capable of speaking several languages. English being one of them. Americans are capable of only two: mumbled/loud regionalized English.

  8. rowlf

    Great. Several people from my department went to Europe for a business meeting and should be back soon. I guess a betting pool for when symptoms appear would be appropriate.

    Do the airports have enough room to space people out at the passport control stations? Pre-pandemic these had long nuts-to-butts lines. How about the airports that use shuttle buses to get to the aircraft on the ramp?

  9. Sound of the Suburbs

    How did Covid spread so quickly around the world from China?

    Can you remember?

  10. GM

    There was also the impact of Euro 2020 (postponed to 2021).

    Which wasn’t quite the mother of all superspreading events that the Kumbh Mela was in India, but still had a big impact on seeding the virus all over the continent.

    It was set up to be a travelling Euro for the first time in history, and they decided to insist on it still being a travelling Euro and with fans in the stadiums, in some countries with no restrictions on density at all, instead of having a bubble with no fans in the stands somewhere secluded.

    And how did it start?

    With an own goal.

    Which someone commented as being highly symbolic right after the first game — that the whole tournament will be a giant own goal for Europe.

    And then it continued with 10 more own goals, more than all previous tournaments combined. To drive the point home without any doubt…

  11. Kris Alman

    Seems to me we should call this the “pandemic of the unmasked.”

    And thank the CDC for how well they’ve called public health policies.

    1. campbeln

      Maybe they should just go with “Mission Accomplished”?

      CDC Director Says Delta Variant Of COVID-19 Among ‘Most Transmissible’ Viruses Known HuffPo.
      Walensky: “It is one of the most infectious respiratory viruses we know of and that I have seen in my 20-year career.”

      Meanwhile, this is CDC’s messaging:
      Being fully vaccinated against #COVID19 means making last-minute plans with friends again. Get vaccinated: https://vaccines.gov.

      “At the moment, around 60% of the patients in serious conditions have been vaccinated.”

      We’re a few weeks behind…

      “breakthrough cases account for 43.4% of all new COVID-19 cases” between July 10 and July 16.”

      Even an ex-NYT reporter is seeing it:

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