The kids are (not) alright: Europe sounds the alarm as Delta variant soars among teens and 20-somethings

July 8, 2021, 3:58 PM UTC

A surge of COVID-19 cases, fueled by infections among the unvaccinated young, is rolling across parts of Europe, fulfilling fears that the Delta variant could batter the continent’s summer travel season.

Just as England prepares to lift social distancing rules, make mask use voluntary, and cut travel quarantine requirements, a surge in cases in Spain and Portugal—prime vacation destinations for English and other European travelers—is pushing back against Europe’s great reopening.

The question now facing European governments is whether enough of their adult population is protected to keep a spike among youth from having deadly consequences.

As they decide whether to reintroduce restrictions or let the new wave run its course, many in healthcare look on in dismay.

Spain and Portugal

Spain’s infection rate among the 12-29 age groups have experienced an almost vertical spike over the last week, especially in the tourism hotspot of Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona. There, the infection rate for 20-29 year olds is over 2,000 per 100,000 people over the last 14 days. Three other regions in northern Spain have rates over 1,000 for the 20-29 age group.

“We are undoubtedly facing a new wave of contagions, but the situation is different from previous ones,” said José Luis Morales Rull, the lead COVID-19 doctor at a major hospital in the Catalan city of Lleida.

The majority of infections are among young, unvaccinated people who are less likely to fall seriously ill, he notes, and because of Spain’s high vaccination rates—89.2% of those over 40 have at least one shot, and 70.6% have two—older people are generally protected. However, he adds, this week he had a case enter the ICU where an unvaccinated women was infected by her granddaughter upon returning from a school trip.

Still, despite a sanguine view from doctors like Morales Rull, scenes of massive alcohol-fueled outdoor parties (known as “botellones”) in the beaches and plazas of Barcelona have brought back memories of the worst days of Spain’s epidemic, and inspired fear among area governments. Barcelona city authorities have announced that they will regularly spray down beaches and plazas with water, a technique used to dissuade people from sitting on the wet surfaces, while the regional government has decided to shutter indoor nightclubs for 15 days.

For other European governments, such measures are not enough. Germany and Belgium have placed Catalonia and several other Spanish regions on their “red” lists, while France’s secretary of state for European affair Clément Beaune on Thursday advised French travelers to avoid Spain, with special emphasis on Catalonia. He issued a similar advisory for Portugal, where the 14-day infection rate is 252 per 100,000 people, the same as Spain.


England has decided to greatly ease its COVID-19 restrictions and drop quarantine requirements for those returning from “amber” list countries like Spain, just as its case numbers have risen to the highest in Europe.

For many British public health experts and epidemiologists, this decision by the Boris Johnson government to go ahead with “freedom day” on July 19—that is, the day in which all major restrictions will be dropped—despite rapidly rising infections is ill-considered, to put it mildly. On Wednesday, a group of more than 4,000 health and science professionals published a letter in the Lancet medical journal calling it a “dangerous and unethical experiment.”

They warned that the approach puts younger people—those who are half-vaccinated or minors who are not able to get vaccinated at all—at risk, including from long COVID-19, which scientists increasingly say can cause long-term, crippling—if not fatal—physical and even mental illness in both children and adults.

“The logic that more people being infected is better is logic that I think has proven its moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity,” said Mike Ryan, the executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, in a media briefing.

Making the situation in England more precious is the national team’s run to the finals of the European Championship soccer tournament, which will be played in London on Sunday.

A study led by researchers at Imperial College London found that England is “experiencing a substantial third wave of infections” and that between June 24 and July 5, men in England were 30% more likely than women to test positive for COVID, a difference that has been attributed to big game-watching gatherings.

“It could be that watching football is resulting in men having more social activity than usual,” said report author Steven Riley, an infectious diseases expert.

Whether or not England brings home its first major soccer trophy in 55 years, the final game has all the earmarks of a super-spreader event. Wembley Stadium in London has been given permission to have 60,000 fans at the game, two-thirds of normal stadium capacity.

Meanwhile, economists at Berenberg Bank, among others, are closely watching the youth-influenced spike in recent cases in England, warning it could be a precursor for other neighboring countries.


There’s a government ministry for just about all facets of life in Italy—or so it seems. And so it struck nobody as particularly odd that a four-star army general went on television recently to lay down the rules for summer night-clubbing in Italy.

“Young people ought to be able to return to the disco,” General Francesco Paolo Figliuolo, who now commands the country’s vaccination program, told the state broadcaster, Rai. But, the general had a few conditions.

Youngsters, he said, have to return to the dance floor with “a responsible attitude,” and, equally vague, proof they’ve been vaccinated against COVID. With greater emphasis, he added that, the young needed to get vaccinated, equating it with a patriotic duty.

When he made the comments, at the end of June, the country was on the verge of declaring victory. Thanks in part to Figliuolo’s military-like oversight of the country’s vaccination efforts, COVID cases had dipped significantly. But, Figliuolo, like others, saw an enemy beyond their borders: the highly contagious Delta variant. The Italian media was quick to point out that fresh outbreaks in Great Britain, Spain and Portugal were overwhelmingly hitting the young.

What, they asked the general, would he do to prevent that kind of thing from happening here? The answer: keep on vaccinating and vaccinating. Behind the scenes, officials pushed back the reopening date for nightclubs and discos—from early-July, to mid-July, to who-knows-when.

Like its European neighbors, Italy has seen an uptick—though slight—in COVID cases. And the country is on high alert to keep that trend from growing into yet another wave, just in time for a season of sun and fun and soccer.

Over the past month, football-crazed Italians have been packing public squares and bars to take in the matches of the Euro Cup. And with Italy set to play England in the finals on Sunday evening, it seems everyone is glued each day to both team news and the latest COVID case numbers.

So far, soccer rules the day. There will be no meaningful restrictions in place for large public gatherings to watch the championship match this weekend.

Still, the question looms: will Italians see the good general back on TV to deliver new rules about how young people ought to watch the national pastime, soccer?

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