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Since the summer, Europe’s second wave of the coronavirus has mainly affected young people, who usually have mild or no symptoms. But infections are beginning to leak into older age groups, the latest data show, often spreading from younger to older members of the same family.
Cases among those aged over 65 are increasing in most European countries, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. As a result, hospitalizations and deaths—which stayed low for much of the summer while infections spread among young people less likely to fall severely ill—are starting to rise too.
Many European countries are now recording more cases than they did in the spring, but that is partly because of better detection. The health emergency isn’t as serious as it was at the time, when only a fraction of infected people were tested for the virus, and some hospitals in countries such as Italy were overrun by severely sick Covid-19 patients.
Still, in the U.K., infections among older age groups rose sharply in late September, according to research by Imperial College London. Hospitalizations of Covid-19 patients more than doubled during September, to more than 2,000, according to official data. Deaths reached 588 in the month through Sept. 28, more than twice the number in August.
In Spain, which is struggling to contain one of Europe’s biggest outbreaks, 547 people died in the first week of October alone. In the week that ended Sept. 1, by comparison, only 159 had died.
When Carmen Pallarolas and her husband tested positive for the coronavirus in August, they blamed their 26-year-old son, who lives with them, leads an active social life and tested positive too.
“Generally young people move around more than us older people do, and they are less careful,” said Ms. Pallarolas, a 60-year-old from the Spanish town of Argentona, who suffered mild Covid-19 symptoms such as a fever and a cough, and who has since recovered.
Even in Germany, where the rise in infections is relatively slow, increasing admissions to intensive-care wards have prompted the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s center for disease control, to warn that the virus is likely spreading to the older generations.
Health officials are advising the elderly to do more to protect themselves, above all by limiting social interactions, avoiding crowds and wearing face masks. They are also urging them to get vaccinated against the flu to prevent overcrowding in hospitals during the winter. Some research suggests that flu vaccinations might also reduce the severity of Covid-19 infections.
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Family members are also being asked to reduce contact with older relatives. “Don’t kill your gran by catching coronavirus and then passing it on,” U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a broadcast interview aimed at younger audiences.
When Vittoria Rosso discovered that a friend she had recently met for a drink had tested positive for the coronavirus, her first thought was for her 87-year-old grandmother, who lives in her building in the Italian city of Turin.
“I could be infected and I could have infected her,” said Ms. Rosso, a 29-year-old psychologist, who is currently self-isolating at home while she waits to get tested for the virus. Although she sanitizes her hands and wears a face mask whenever she sees her grandmother, she worries such precautions weren’t enough.
In Italy, the median age of those newly infected is rising, with people over the age of 50 accounting for more than one-third of detected cases recently, according to Italy’s National Health Institute. Most new infections are happening within households.
But after months of social distancing, many Europeans are no longer willing or able to stay away from their relative—particularly in southern European countries such as Italy and Spain, where multigenerational households are common and grandparents often help out with child care.
Manuel Jiménez, a 73-year-old retiree who lives near Barcelona, avoids crowded places and runs errands early in the morning when there are fewer people around. But he still picks up his grandson from school most days.
“His parents are working and can’t make it on time. If I don’t pick him up, who will?,” says Mr. Jiménez, waiting outside the school in a crowd of children and other grandparents. “In the end, life has to continue, even if the virus is out here.”
European countries should try harder to suppress the virus across the whole population, rather than accepting its spread while trying to isolate older people from the rest of society, says Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.
In South Korea, Taiwan and other parts of East Asia, widespread mask-wearing combined with effective testing, tracing and isolation of virus carriers has reduced contagion to a low level, she says, making daily life safer for everyone, including the old.
“We are focusing on the wrong things,” Prof. Sridhar says. “Asia is focusing on how to suppress this virus most effectively. We are focusing on how to cut off one part of society.”
Europe’s nursing homes, which were ravaged by the virus in the spring, are trying especially hard to protect the elderly by isolating them. But it is taking a heavy psychological toll on many residents.
In parts of Italy, care-home residents haven’t been allowed out for months, even for short walks. Those who have a doctor’s appointment must self-isolate for two weeks when they return. Physical contact with visiting relatives is strictly forbidden.
“Of course we need to be careful,” says Silvio Ferrato, who runs a nursing home in Sanfront, a small village in northern Italy, and who is pushing authorities to relax the rules. “But seeing our guests try to caress their relatives through plexiglass barriers or tablet devices is heartbreaking.”
His own 93-year-old mother would rather stay home than move to the nursing home, which she says is like a prison.
Many guests of the nursing home don’t understand why they can’t spend more time with their loved ones. Nilda Nari, who is in her late 80s, was so upset when her son left their 15-minute meeting without giving her a hug that, after he walked out, she sat without moving or saying a word for several minutes.
After 85-year-old Teresa Gerbaudo moved into the Sanfront nursing home over the summer, she lost her once-healthy appetite. These days, she eats so little she is being fed intravenously. She is in and out of hospital.
Her daughter, Franca Buffa, is worried her mother is giving up on life. “It’s devastating. I am home with a broken heart because I know she is alone,” she says. Old people such as her mother “are letting themselves go, as if they don’t want to fight anymore. Covid can also kill indirectly.”
—Jason Douglas in London and Bojan Pancevski in Berlin contributed to this article
Write to Margherita Stancati at [email protected]
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