Coronavirus: Demand for face masks in Germany jumps – but do they actually work?

Face masks are flying off the shelves across Germany after authorities confirmed cases in Bavaria. But are they effective?

Coronavirus: Demand for face masks in Germany jumps - but do they actually work?
A woman wearing a protective face mask in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

People wearing face masks have become a defining image of large health outbreaks. And for the coronavirus it's no different.

Now the arrival of the virus in Germany is fuelling a demand for the protective face masks.

However, experts say the thin material masks, which are meant for surgeons to carry out operations safely, do little to stop a respiratory virus spreading at least in these early stages.

According to Bavarian broadcaster BR24, some pharmacies in Germany have reported selling out of the masks, which are worn over the mouth and nose. 

A spokesman for the Bavarian Pharmacists' Association told DPA on Tuesday that he had heard pharmacies in Lower Franconia and Munich had also run out of the masks.

The Federal Association of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers confirmed that individual wholesalers were unable to meet the demand from pharmacies.


However, Bernd Salzberger, chairman of the German Society for Infectiology at Regensburg University Hospital, said these masks were not appropriate in the context of Germany's current situation.

Four people – all in Bavaria – have so far been found to have the coronavirus.

“Personal protection is completely absurd at the moment,” Salzberger told DPA.

According to Salzberger, so-called surgical face masks are not actually designed to protect against infection, but rather to prevent potentially infectious droplets from the respiratory tract of surgeons from entering the operating area.

It would make sense, for example, to wear a mask to protect other people when you are ill with flu or another virus, he said. “But the protection against an infection from outside doesn't work very well,” Salzberger said.

It is impossible to say how many breathing masks are out of stock in Bavaria – and the rest of Germany – as concrete numbers are not yet available, said Ursula Sellerberg of the Federal Association of German Pharmacists' Associations.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) also advise against the use of mouth and nose protection for the general population, as long as you are not a suspected case or you're not in contact with sick people.

How should you protect yourself?

In order to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, good hand hygiene, carrying out so-called coughing and sneezing etiquette and keeping a distance from sick people should be observed.

“In view of the wave of influenza, however, these measures are advisable everywhere and at all times,” writes the RKI.

If you have to cough and sneeze, it is better not to do it in your hand, but in your sweater or jacket sleeve and that keeps your hands clean.

When coughing and sneezing, you should try and keep a distance from others.

Tips for proper hand hygiene

Hands should be washed with soap for 20 to 30 seconds several times a day, not only after going to the toilet and before meals, but also before preparing food.

Hands should also be thoroughly cleaned after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, after contact with rubbish and before handling medication.

It is also advisable to keep your hands away from your face and avoid shaking hands. In public facilities, hands should be dried with a paper towel, if possible, rather than a hand dryer.

Ventilation also helps

Regular ventilation by opening the window in the office or at home is advisable. This counteracts the spread of viruses in the air and reduces the risk of infection.

It also improves the indoor climate, which prevents the mucous membranes of the mouth and nose from drying out, which in turn is very important for defending against viruses.


Protective face masks – (die) Schutzmasken

Surgical face mask – (die) chirurgische Gesichtsmaske

Respiratory disease – (die) Atemwegserkrankung

Advisable – ratsam

Ventilation – (das) Lüften

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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.