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Belgium's Health Minister Calls COVID-19 Surge 'Most Dangerous In Europe'

NOEL KING, HOST:

After a relatively normal summer, coronavirus cases are exploding across the European continent, and it's getting particularly bad in Belgium. The small country has seen new COVID cases rise more than 200% in the past two weeks. Yesterday, Belgium's health minister said the situation was, quote, "the most dangerous in all of Europe." Reporter Teri Schultz is on the line with me now from Brussels, Belgium's capital. Good morning, Teri.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What's happening there? How is Belgium dealing with the surge?

SCHULTZ: Well, as you mentioned, there is definitely a new sense of alarm, even in officials who normally want to calm the public down. The prime minister said yesterday that the situation we have here now is worse than the first wave in March. And as you mentioned, the health minister issued a very stark warning over the weekend saying we are close to a tsunami and that the spike in cases may already be out of control. And I talked to some Belgian friends who really found this quite disturbing. So what's happening on an official front, Noel, is that all restaurants and bars are now going to be closed for a month. And we have an overnight curfew and people are limited to close contact with just one other person outside their household. So that tells you how seriously they're taking the attempts to curb the infection rate. But that said, schools are open. And even last week, Noel, European Union leaders still held their meetings in person, and some of them went home with positive tests.

KING: Do public health experts have any idea why Belgium specifically is seeing such huge increases?

SCHULTZ: Well, a lot of people believed they saw it coming when the Belgian government decided to dramatically ease restrictions because over the summer things went so well. So despite there being what, you know, we all might have seen as a fragile situation, there were still sporting events being held. People could gather indoors in numbers of 200 as long as they said they were respecting the social distancing and wearing masks. And all schools went back full time. And just yesterday, my teenager's high school sent home a note saying there will be changes to his daily schedule because so many teachers have come down sick, are in quarantine. So that's not reassuring. But I spoke recently with one of the leading virologists, and he said actually the biggest problem isn't these social gatherings. It's at home where people are letting their guard down.

KING: So how are hospitals coping?

SCHULTZ: Well, we've been warned here that ICUs will definitely be overrun within the next couple of weeks if numbers aren't coming down. And as you mentioned, they are definitely not coming down. And I just checked the figures, and half of those being admitted to hospitals are already on ventilators. So we're talking about very serious cases coming in. Normally in the EU, European countries can ask their neighbors for help and even transfer patients across borders. But we've already seen the Netherlands next door have to ask Germany to take some of their patients. We know France is getting worse, and Germany also is seeing a rise. So it's really going to be worrying for health officials where they're going to be able to care for these patients that are going into the ICU.

KING: Reporter Teri Schultz in Brussels. Teri, thanks so much.

SCHULTZ: Sure, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "FUTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.