LATEST: German coronavirus cases ‘stable’ as leaders debate easing lockdown

The number of people infected with coronavirus in Germany has "stabilised", the public health chief said Tuesday, as politicians prepare for talks on when to end the lockdown measures used to slow the disease's spread.

LATEST: German coronavirus cases 'stable' as leaders debate easing lockdown
A tram passenger in Berlin stands next to a sign reading: "Show love, keep a distance. Distance saves lives." Photo: DPA

“Numbers have stabilised at a relatively high level,” Lothar Wieler of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control told reporters.

“There is no clear sign at present that they're falling,” he added.

Politicians are waiting on every comment by the country's leading medical experts, as Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold a conference Wednesday with state premiers on whether and for how long to extend infection control measures.

READ ALSO: 'Schools should reopen': Germany moves towards lockdown exit as coronavirus cases drop

At present, they are slated to expire on April 19th.

“We should keep up our discipline from the past weeks,” Wieler urged Tuesday, noting that while the trend on new infections was heading in a “positive” direction, it was not yet possible to say that the disease has been contained.

As of Tuesday at 1 pm, over 130,000 people in Germany had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.

By midnight, 125,098 people in Europe's most populous country had tested positive for coronavirus, according to RKI data.

About half of them — around 65,000 — went on to recover, while nearly 3,200 of them have died.

Strict social distancing measures, including closures of schools and many businesses and a mandate to maintain a distance of 1.5 metres between people, have helped slow the virus' spread in Germany. Extensive testing has also caught many cases early.

“Given the present momentum, there is no forecast of shortfalls” in the number of intensive care beds in German hospitals to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients, Wieler said.

“Compared with many other countries, we're doing well”.

READ ALSO: Germany ranked 'second safest country in the world' during coronavirus pandemic

'No right or wrong'

Even as Wieler called for infection control measures to be upheld, debate has begun about when everyday life can begin inching back towards normality.

Eyes have turned to neighbouring Austria, where Chancellor Sebastian Kurz allowed many smaller businesses to reopen from Tuesday — but with conditions such as wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance from others.

Germany's Leopoldina national science academy published on Monday a paper outlining the first lockdown exit steps that could be implemented, including a gradual reopening of schools, obligatory mask-wearing in public transport and increased data gathering.

Recommendations from the 26-strong group of scientists will inform Merkel's
Wednesday conference.

Berlin mayor Michael Müller told broadcaster RBB Tuesday the lockdowns could be relaxed “at the earliest from April 27th, or possibly from May 1st”.

But “it probably won't be this coming Monday”, the day after the measures
are currently set to expire, Müller added.

RKI chief Wieler said there were “no major differences” between his view of the situation and the Leopoldina's, beyond “small details” such as which age groups should return to school first.

“There is still no blueprint” for how to reopen a society and economy after the virus lockdown, he added, and “not always a right and wrong” answer.

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.