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More than half of Europeans could be infected with COVID-19 in the next two months

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The number of COVID-19 cases in Europe has surged, driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant. And this week, the World Health Organization forecast that more than half of all Europeans could be infected within the next two months.

NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Berlin.

Rob, thanks so much for being with us.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us about where you are in Germany, where COVID infections are way up. How have authorities approached it?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, nearly every day this week, Germany broke a new record of daily coronavirus infections. And here in Berlin, where I am, the city's tightening what were already pretty strict rules for going out in public. Starting today, restaurants, bars, sports facilities and theaters will not only be asking for proof that customers are fully vaccinated or recovered from COVID, but they're also going to require evidence of a negative test taken within the last 24 hours to allow people indoors. Fortunately, getting a test here in Berlin is pretty easy. There are white tents set up every couple of blocks or so where you can get a rapid test free of charge.

But this omicron surge is a test for Germany's new government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He held his first question time in Parliament this week. And he was grilled by lawmakers about how he's going to manage this stage of the pandemic. He responded by urging the more than 15 million Germans who have refused to get vaccinated to do so as soon as they can.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR OLAF SCHOLZ: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, Scott, he's saying here that the decision to get vaccinated is not an individual one. It's a decision that impacts all 80 million Germans. "And the rising infection numbers," he said, "clearly show this." And it's this frustration that has led his government to call for mandatory vaccinations.

SIMON: Rob, officials in Germany and Austria urge universal vaccinations in all citizens. Has that begun?

SCHMITZ: No. In December, German Chancellor Scholz called for mandatory vaccinations for all Germans by April. But this week, he said it's up to lawmakers in Germany's Parliament to come up with legislation to do this. Parliament has yet to start this process, and many are wondering when or if it will happen. There is certainly a reluctance to implement government mandates in Germany based on the country's history in World War II and beyond.

Meanwhile, in Austria, its government made headlines last year for being the first country to call for a vaccine mandate. They wanted to do it by February. But as we get closer to that date, it's clear that may not happen either. This week, the Austrian agency in charge of overseeing the mandate said it would not be able to enforce it until April at the earliest. So there's been a lot of talk about mandates in this part of Europe, but not much action. And frankly, given how slowly they're moving, by the time there's a mandate, the omicron wave could be a thing of the past.

SIMON: And tell us how other countries in Europe are contending with that wave.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, some countries like Italy and France are tightening rules like Germany is. But at least one country, Spain, has taken a different approach. This week, the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, essentially threw up his hands and said this new surge of infections is so overwhelming that he suggested Spain start treating COVID-19 as an endemic virus, like the flu. So that would mean authorities would no longer be recording every new COVID infection and issuing lockdowns to try and prevent the spread of the virus. Instead, it would track COVID waves like it tracks seasonal waves of influenza and just be done with it. Now, this has not gone over well in the rest of Europe. The EU usually tries to be on the same page when managing the pandemic. But it's certainly a new approach to what has been, so far, the most intense wave of the pandemic.

SIMON: NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz - thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.