How Germany is turning to South Korean model in coronavirus fight

In the race against the coronavirus, Germany is betting on widespread testing and quarantining to break the infection chain, a strategy borrowed from South Korea whose success in slowing the outbreak has become the envy of the world.

How Germany is turning to South Korean model in coronavirus fight
A laboratory assistant analyses molecular biological samples for the SARS CoV-2 virus in Geesthacht, Schleswig-Holstein.

Germany is already carrying out more coronavirus tests than any other European country at a rate of 300,000 to 500,000 a week, according to officials.

But Chancellor Angela Merkel's government aims to ramp that up to at least
200,000 tests a day, according to an interior ministry document seen by several German media outlets.

READ ALSO: Germany ramps up coronavirus tests to 500,000 a week

The goal would be to test all those who suspect they have caught the virus, as well as the entire circle of people who have come into contact with a confirmed case.

Current testing criteria are focussed on those who are sick with COVID-19 symptoms and have had contact with a confirmed case.

The idea, according to the document, is to move from tests “that confirm the situation” to tests that “get ahead of it”.

A crucial weapon in the battle would be the use of smartphone location data to trace a patient's recent movements, to more accurately track down and isolate potentially infected people.

Cell-phone tracking

While government officials and epidemiologists have come out in favour of cell-phone tracking, it remains a controversial idea in privacy-minded Germany, a nation haunted by the surveillance of the Nazi era and the communist-era Stasi secret police.

Germany's proposed plans echo the “trace, test and treat” strategy that appears to have helped South Korea bring its outbreak under control. It has included mass screening for potential cases and heavy use of technology to monitor patients.

Although Germany and South Korea are two very different countries, the Asian nation's virus strategy “can be an example”, the head of Germany's Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control told the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily.

“A key point is tracing cell phone data,” Lothar Wieler said.

Storm brewing

With a total of 389 deaths out of more than 52,000 cases, Germany has a mortality rate of just 0.7 percent — compared with around 10 percent in hardest-hit Italy and eight percent in Spain.

But German Health Minister Jens Spahn has warned that the country could face “a storm” of new cases in the weeks ahead.

The RKI's Wieler warned that the dramatic scenes at Italian hospitals at breaking point could happen in Germany as well.

“We can't rule out that we will have more patients than ventilators here too,” he said.

With 25,000 intensive care beds equipped with ventilators, Germany is in a better position than many countries to deal with an influx of patients in respiratory distress.

But years of underfunding have left the country's healthcare system woefully understaffed.

“In recent months, some intensive care beds have had to be put out of action because of a lack of staff,” said Reinhard Busse, a specialist in health economics at the Technical University of Berlin.

Germany currently has some 17,000 unfilled vacancies in nursing care.

As a result, many hospitals have resorted to drafting in retired health professionals or student medics to help with the expected coronavirus onslaught, including at Berlin's renowned Charite university hospital.

READ ALSO: Germany ramps up intensive care and hospital capacity in coronavirus fight

Polish workers

“Even before the coronavirus crisis, operations had to be cancelled because of a lack of staff,” Uwe Lübking, head of labour market policies at the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, told AFP.

And when there is personnel on hand, nurses can spend up to four hours a day doing paperwork as Germany continues to lag behind other nations in digitalising administrative tasks, experts say.

To make matters worse, confinement measures and border checks brought in to
stem the virus spread have made it harder for foreign workers to travel to their German workplaces, with healthcare institutions on the frontier with Poland particularly affected.

Critics have also argued that the German health system, which pays hospitals a fixed price per surgery, has led many hospitals to focus on the more lucrative practice of offering scheduled surgeries like hip or knee replacements, at the expense of strengthening their emergency care facilities.

Although Spahn has urged the directors of some 2,000 hospitals and clinics to cancel all non-urgent surgeries, several are resisting the call, according to Der Spiegel weekly.

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Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

German health ministers say that tougher Covid restrictions should come back into force if a serious wave emerges in autumn.

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Following a video meeting on Monday, the health ministers of Germany’s 16 states said tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

“The corona pandemic is not over yet – we must not be deceived by the current declining incidences,” said Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister Petra Grimm-Benne, of the Social Democrats, who currently chairs the Conference of Health Ministers (GMK).

According to the GMK, new virus variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter. Over the weekend, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also warned that the more dangerous Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the corona pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Grimm-Benne said.

Preparations should also include an amendment of the Infection Protection Act, ministers urged. They want to see the states given powers to react to the infection situation in autumn and winter. They called on the government to initiate the legislative process in a timely manner, and get the states actively involved.

The current Infection Protection Act expires on September 23rd this year. Germany has loosened much of its Covid restrictions in the last months, however, face masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as on planes. 

READ ALSO: Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

The health ministers said that from autumn onwards, it should be possible for states to make masks compulsory indoors if the regional infection situation calls for it. Previously, wearing a Covid mask was obligatory in Germany when shopping and in restaurants and bars when not sitting at a table. 

Furthermore, the so-called 3G rule for accessing some venues and facilities – where people have to present proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test – should be implemented again if needed, as well as other infection protection rules, the ministers said. 

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek, of the CSU, welcomed the ministers’ unanimous call for a revision of the Infection Protection Act. “The states must be able to take all necessary infection protection measures quickly, effectively, and with legal certainty,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) warned that no one should “lull themselves into a false sense of security”.

“We must now prepare for the colder season and use the time to be able to answer important questions about the immunity of the population or the mechanisms of infection chains,” he said.

On Tuesday, Germany reported 86,253 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 215 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence stood at 437.6 infections per 100,000 people. However, experts believe there could be twice as many infections because lots of cases go unreported. 

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now