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The WHO says COVID cases in Europe have risen steadily over the past 5 weeks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The death toll from COVID-19 around the world topped 5 million this week. Numbers are improving week by week in the United States - have been for a couple of months. But things are getting worse in Europe, according to the WHO. In Europe, infections have risen steadily for five weeks. Just this week, Russia's been setting new records for the number of deaths, while in Germany there are many cases of breakthrough infections among people who have received the COVID vaccines.

Let's talk about this with Charles Maynes in Moscow and NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz. Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And Charles, let's begin in Moscow. What's it like there?

MAYNES: Well, we've seen this unrelenting wave, really, from the delta strain that's been building throughout the fall - just since October 20, for example, over a thousand deaths every day, including this morning. Russia's got the highest death - number of fatalities in Europe, closing in on 250,000 from the coronavirus, even though there's evidence to suggest those real numbers are much higher. As to why, it comes down to vaccinations. Despite the availability of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine all year, little more than a third of Russians are fully vaccinated. And that's really a result of skepticism towards the way Sputnik was rolled out before trials were even complete.

State media also fed doubts about the seriousness of the virus early on and questioned Western vaccines. And that's made it difficult to convince Russians to get the shot. And good old-fashioned Russian fatalism maybe plays a role here, too. Amid all these COVID related deaths, a new independent poll found 50% still aren't worried about dying from the virus.

INSKEEP: Well, Charles, I just want to dwell on the media question for a moment here. Has it gotten to the point where Russia's state-controlled media have pushed out so much propaganda that people don't believe the government even when they need to?

MAYNES: Exactly. They've almost kind of convinced everyone that there is no such thing as truth. And this goes not just to the reporting on the coronavirus, but on politics and everything else. And the result is Russians don't know a good thing when they have it. Sputnik V has been proven to be effective, at least in independent studies. And there's no reason not to take it. But yet Russians seem averse to it.

INSKEEP: How does that compare with other countries in Eastern Europe?

MAYNES: Well, in fact, vaccination rates are low throughout the countries of the former USSR. So if you take, say, Ukraine, it's even lower - just 18% fully vaccinated. And what's curious here is they have access not to Russia's Sputnik, but to Western vaccines - so Pfizer, Moderna, et cetera. As to why they're not taking it, again, it's disinformation. It's distrust.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently pleaded with Ukrainians to, quote, "turn on their brains" - that's his words - and ignore all the media conspiracies surrounding vaccinations - some of them, of course, coming out of neighboring Russia. But there's an additional problem of those that are getting vaccinated. Most are younger, healthier Ukrainians. The government has really failed to convince older, at-risk Ukrainians to get the shot. And they're the ones filling up hospitals.

INSKEEP: That is amazing and kind of the opposite of the trend here in the United States. Rob, how does this compare to the part of Europe where you are? You're in Berlin, of course.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, this - you know, Charles was just talking about Eastern Europe. And, you know, I would even add Balkan States - Serbia, Croatia, other Eastern European countries, like Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia. All of these places have extremely high infection rates and low vaccination rates. Here in Germany, officials recorded nearly 34,000 infections in the past 24 hours. That's more than the high point during the last wave of the virus. A bulk of these cases is the delta variant.

And here in Berlin, the hospital association says the city's intensive care units are nearly filled to capacity. And they are now starting to postpone routine operations. Yesterday, Germany's health minister said this fourth wave of the pandemic is a crisis, that it's a wave of the unvaccinated and that it is massive. Cases are rising sharply. Hospitalizations are way up - and that numbers are highest in the regions of the country with the lowest vaccination rates. And though he's correct about that, we're also seeing infection spikes in areas where vaccination rates are high as well.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. Are some of these infections breakthrough infections with people who are vaccinated?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. There are quite a few. You know, according to health authorities, nearly 2 of every 3 new infections this autumn among those over 60 in Germany have been breakthrough infections among those who have been already vaccinated. It's already - it's important to note here that two-thirds of all Germans are fully vaccinated. Yet we are still seeing the spike. And all of this is happening while many state governments throughout Germany have loosened COVID restrictions. Here in Berlin, nightclubs have reopened. Many restaurants are not bothering to enforce rules that require them to check vaccination certificates before people sit down to eat. And the city has already begun allowing unvaccinated children to stop wearing masks in public schools. And this, you know, lax approach while the country is seeing its biggest spike in COVID cases is frustrating for health professionals, teachers and anyone else on the front lines of the pandemic.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should just pause to clarify something that our health reporters have told us time and time again. Vaccines are about percentages. If it's 85% effective, if it's 95% percent effective, that's pretty good. But if millions of people get the vaccine, some of them are going to have breakthrough infections. So let's turn back now to Moscow and Charles Maynes. What are other authorities doing in this situation they now find themselves in?

MAYNES: Well, we're midway through what the Kremlin is calling a non-working week. It's not quite a lockdown. It's more like a national holiday imposed by the Kremlin while regional authorities are tasked with getting COVID numbers under control and introducing restrictions. And the picture here is really confusing in a way. Moscow's mayor now says that businesses have been - that had been closed all week will reopen Monday. The situation, in his words, has stabilized. Several regional governors say they'll extend restrictions, even though their numbers, at least, look far better than Moscow's. And there's just really no way to tell yet whether these decisions are driven by politics or science or some combination thereof. But we're certainly about to find out.

INSKEEP: Rob, are Germans also planning more restrictions as the weather gets colder, which can make a virus more dangerous?

SCHMITZ: Yes. But the problem here is that after you've given people more freedoms, it's always difficult to then reverse that and then take them away. The business community and many of Germany's state governments seem reluctant to clamp down and tighten COVID restrictions once again, especially since the federal government under outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel is allowing a national state of emergency declaration to expire at the end of this month. You know, that sent a message that the pandemic was over. It is very much not over.

And now the government is backpedaling, urging local health authorities to speed up the booster shot campaign. Less than 3% of all Germans have received a booster vaccination. And Germany's vaccine regulator, which many doctors look to for advice, is only recommending the booster for those over the age of 70. So even if you want a booster shot, it's been difficult for Germans under that age to convince their doctors to get one. So these mixed messages coming from authorities is slowing the process down as infections are sharply rising.

INSKEEP: Rob, the delta wave in the United States put a damper on the economic recovery here. Is something similar happening where you are?

SCHMITZ: It is. Yes. You know - and that's part of the problem, Steve, you know, because the business community in Germany, you know, suffered a lot during the actual pandemic. And, you know, we're still in the pandemic. And things have opened up a bit. And so they're really trying to recoup the costs that they lost. And that's been a huge problem throughout the country.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Berlin. Charles Maynes is in Moscow. Thanks to you both.

MAYNES: Thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "UNDER A WARM RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.