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European coronavirus restrictions appear to be paying off, WHO says, as U.S. cases soar

"I firmly believe that there is more hope ahead of us than despair behind us," said Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe.
Image: A Christmas tree stands on display in the middle of Leadenhall Market where all the non-essential shops are temporarily closed, during England's second coronavirus lockdown in the City of London financial district of London
A Christmas tree stands in the middle of Leadenhall Market in London, where all non-essential shops are temporarily closed, during England's second coronavirus lockdown. Matt Dunham / AP

LONDON — Coronavirus lockdown restrictions in Europe appear to be paying off, with a dip in new weekly cases, the World Health Organization said, offering a glimmer of hope ahead of Christmas, while cases soar in the United States.

Restrictions, from school and store closures to limited social interactions, have led to a slight decrease in new Covid-19 weekly cases from 2 million to 1.8 million over the last two weeks, the WHO said.

"It's a small signal, but it's a signal nevertheless," WHO regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge said in a statement Thursday.

He said future lockdowns were "avoidable" if more people wore masks and used contact-tracing technology.

He also offered a glimmer of hope for those planning to spend the Christmas holiday season with loved ones.

"I firmly believe that there is more hope ahead of us than despair behind us," he said. Adding, "It will be a different Christmas, but that does not mean it cannot be a merry one."

In total, Europe has registered 15.9 million Covid-19 casesand just over 359,000 deaths, according to WHO data, accounting for 28 percent of global cases.

But the continent is certainly not out of the woods, with one person dying every 17 seconds from Covid-19, he said. Intensive care units, especially in France and Switzerland, are nearing full capacity.

In the U.K., which has the highest coronavirus death-toll in Europe, England is in the midst of a second national lockdown but "there are encouraging signs that the number of cases is starting to flatten," health minister Matt Hancock said Friday. "The lockdown that we brought in earlier this month is working."

In France, where people must stay at home except to buy essential goods or exercise for one hour a day, there are signs the national lockdown is working.

Health ministry data found 21,150 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, down from 28,383 on Wednesday, while pressure on the hospital system was also easing. The total number of confirmed French coronavirus cases now stands at more than 2 million.

"The virus circulates less than before the lockdown. We must not let down our efforts," French health minister Olivier Veran told a press conference Thursday.

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The slight improvement in Europe comes as cases in the United States continue to climb — 11,774,814 cases have been confirmed alongside 253,337 deaths, according to NBC News data, both figures the highest in the world.

On Thursday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans not to travel during the Thanksgiving holiday next week, to mitigate the spread of the virus.

"We're alarmed with the exponential increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths," said CDC official Henry Walke.

California Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a stay-at-home order and curfew on social gatherings and other non-essential activities on Thursday, to curb the alarming surge in infections. While a similar 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew order was issued on Thursday in Ohio and will remain in place for the next 21 days, Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, announced separately.

New York City's public school system, the nation's largest, halted in-class instruction due to rising infection rates, causing some consternation among parents as Mayor Bill de Blasio said the measures were necessary and temporary.

Image: A member of the medical personnel wearing protective clothing takes a swab from a man in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing centre at San Severo fuori le mura church, in Naples, Italy
A man at a coronavirus testing center at San Severo fuori le mura church in Naples, Italy, has a Covid-19 swab taken. Ciro De Luca / Reuters

However, encouraging news of vaccine breakthroughs from drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna each separately showing over 90 percent effectiveness this week, have cheered many.

"While vaccines will not stop Covid-19 entirely," WHO's Kluge said, "they do represent a great hope in the war against this virus."

Reuters contributed to this report.