LATEST: Germany gears up for second coronavirus wave amid steps back to normalcy

Even as Germany begins easing curbs on public life to halt contagion of the virus, authorities are busy ramping up their capacity to deal with a second wave of infections.

LATEST: Germany gears up for second coronavirus wave amid steps back to normalcy
Coronavirus tests at a testing centre in Ludwigslust, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Photo: DPA

Left empty as the coronavirus pandemic forced events to be cancelled, Berlin's exhibition centre Messe is getting a makeover with the help of German soldiers — to reemerge as a hospital in a few weeks' time.

Wires are still hanging from the ceilings, but when construction is finished, the vast site will be able to host up to 1,000 patients.

READ ALSO: 'Let's not risk a setback': Merkel warns against easing Germany's coronavirus rules too quickly

Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly warned that Germany must not rest on its laurels even if the infection rate has dropped, saying it is still “on thin ice”.

Virologist Christian Drosten of Berlin's Charite hospital has also warned that the virus could return with a “totally different force”.

“The virus will continue to spread in the course of the next weeks and months,” Drosten told public broadcaster NDR, adding that a second wave would be dangerous as it could pop up “everywhere at the same time”.

“We may be in the process of completely squandering our headstart,” he said, warning against complacency.

So Germany, which has won international praise for its widespread testing system as well as huge capacity in treating patients, is still throwing vast resources at increasing the number of intensive care beds equipped with ventilators.


The university hospital in Aachen. Photo: DPA

At the university hospital in Aachen, close to the Dutch border, dozens of  beds lie empty in case of a resurgence in cases.

“We are ready to react dynamically,” said Gernot Marx, director of intensive care at the hospital, which treated some of the first serious cases earlier this year.

“We have not yet had to decide (to treat one patient over another)… due to the high bed capacity and good preparation,” added fellow doctor Anne Bruecken. “I hope it stays that way.”.

Almost 13,000 of Germany's 32,000 intensive care beds remained free at the last count.

From the start of the crisis, Germany had much more breathing room than its European neighbours, with 33.9 intensive care beds per 100,000 inhabitants compared to 8.6 in Italy and 16.3 in France.

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

And it has since drastically expanded intensive care and screening capacities.

“Germany is prepared for a possible second wave,” said Gerald Gass, president of the German Hospitals Society (DKG).

“In the coming months, we plan to keep around 20 percent of our beds with respiratory assistance free, and we want to be able to free up a further 20 percent at 72 hours notice… if a second wave comes,” Gass told AFP.

Germany currently has a coronavirus mortality rate of 3.5 percent, with latest figures showing 150,383 confirmed cases with 5,321 fatalities.

While that figure is rising, it remains far below that of other countries such as Spain or Italy, where the death rate hovers at 10 percent.

With Germany's health system yet to become overburdened, Gass has called on hospitals to slowly return to treating patients whose cases were suspended during the crisis as they are deemed to require less time-pressing operations.

“In general, our hospitals are less busy now than they are usually,” he said.

The entrance to a hospital in Potsdam, which advises passersby to stay at home, on April 13th. Photo: DPA

'Step by step'

Berlin's current strategy is to pursue a step-by-step return to normality, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of tests a week.

Merkel has said the aim is to be able to return to a stage where infection numbers are low enough to allow contact chains to be traced and isolated to prevent flare-ups elsewhere.

To that end, a contact tracing app is expected to be rolled out in the coming weeks.

Masks are now also obligatory on public transport across the country and, in some states, in shops as well.

“We have now learned that a dynamic development in infections means an immediate burden for the health system,” said Gass.

“That means we need to use tests to very quickly identify what effect the step-by-step lifting of restrictions is having.”


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EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

Due to high Covid infection numbers throughout the summer, it’s now possible to get a sick note from a doctor over the phone again for some illnesses. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

What’s happened?

In spring 2020, German authorities changed the law so that people with a mild upper respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold, were able to get an incapacity to work certificate or AU-Bescheinigung by simply calling and speaking to their GP.

The rule was extended several times and finally reversed on June 1st this year due to falling infection figures. Since then people have had to go back to the practice – or do a video call if the doctor’s office has that system in place – to get a sick note.

Now, due to a decision by the Joint Federal Committee, the regulation has been reintroduced and patients can call their GP again for a sick note.

Can I get a sick note over the phone for any illness?

No. As before, the regulation only applies to patients suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Though Covid has not explicitly been named in the announcement, it seems that it is intended to be covered by the regulation.

If the doctor is convinced that the patient is unfit for work after a telephone consultation, then they can issue a sick note for up to seven days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes around doctor’s notes in Germany you should know

If the symptoms persist after seven days, the certificate can be extended once more for another week.

Why now?

According to the Chairman of the G-BA, Josef Hecken, the regulation has been introduced now as a response to rising Covid numbers and in anticipation of the cold and flu season in the coming months: “We want to avoid full waiting rooms in doctors’ offices and the emergence of new infection chains,” he said.

The telephone sick leave rule is a simple, proven and uniform nationwide solution for that, he said. The rule is also necessary because video consultation hours are not yet available everywhere.

What else should I know?

The health insurer DAK is calling for telephone sick leave in the case of light respiratory diseases to be made possible on a permanent basis in Germany. DAK’s CEO Andreas Storm said that this should “not always be up for debate, because it has proven itself.” 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The social association VdK also welcomed the reintroduction of the rule. The VdK’s President Verena Bentele said that the regulation would help to protect high-risk groups in particular from potential infections.

What are the rules to know about sick notes in Germany?

Germany has a strict system in place. If you are sick, you need to give your employer a Krankmeldung (notification of sickness) before the start of work on the first day (of your illness).

However, you also need to hand in a Krankschreibung (doctor’s note) on the fourth day of your illness. Some employments contracts, however, require you to submit a sick not earlier than the fourth day so check with your boss or HR on that point.