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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.

'Prepared'


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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COVID-19

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. 

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