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HEALTH

German choirs silenced as singing branded coronavirus risk

Hardly considered an extreme activity up to now, singing -- especially choral singing -- is quickly earning a reputation in the pandemic as about the most dangerous thing you can do.

German choirs silenced as singing branded coronavirus risk
Berlin choir members sing on the steps of the Berlin Cathedral on May 21st. Photo: DPA

When the Berlin Cathedral Choir gathered for a rehearsal on March 9th, the new coronavirus was still a distant concern, with fewer than 50 confirmed cases in the German capital.

But five days later, one of the ensemble's 80 singers contacted choir director Tobias Brommann to say she had tested positive for Covid-19.

Within two weeks, around 30 members had tested positive and a further 30 were showing symptoms — including Brommann himself, who was struck down with a headache, cough and fever.

“We also can't be sure if those without symptoms were not infected too, as we have not done antibody tests,” Brommann told AFP.

Similar horror stories have emerged from choirs around the world, including one in Amsterdam where 102 singers are reported to have fallen sick with Covid-19.

High-risk activity

Though much is not yet understood about how the new coronavirus spreads, anecdotal evidence has been enough to convince German authorities that singing is a particularly high-risk activity.

Under new freedoms being gradually introduced across the country's states, Germans can meet friends in the park, dine in a restaurant, play sports, go to church, browse the shops, watch football and even go swimming.

READ ALSO: Germany extends coronavirus distance rules to June 29th

But singing remains broadly off limits, and it looks likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

In recommendations for the resumption of church services published in April, the federal government stated that singing should be avoided “because of the increased production of potentially infectious droplets, which can be spread over greater distances”.

Several states have heeded the advice and banned singing from services.

Even Germany's revered Robert Koch Institute (RKI) disease control centre has warned against singing, with RKI head Lothar Wieler saying that “droplets fly particularly far when singing”.

Infectious particles

The fears are partly based on the fact that when singing, as Brommann points out, “you inhale and exhale very deeply, so if there are virus particles floating in the air then they can get into the lungs relatively quickly”.

But there is also evidence to suggest that singing produces especially high numbers of potentially infectious micro-particles. According to a study published in the Nature journal in 2019, saying “aah” for 30 seconds produces twice as many such particles as 30 seconds of continuous coughing.

Archive photo shows choir singers in Fulda, Hesse in September 2017. Photo: DPA

Indeed, many choirs fear their future looks bleak. Five German boys' choirs have written to the government saying their existence is under threat and demanding action to save them from ruin.

At the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Berlin's Schöneberg district, there have been no choir rehearsals since early March.

Soprano Heike Benda-Blanck, 59, has been singing there for 10 years.

“I do miss it,” she said. “You can still sing in the shower but it's not the same.”

Some research has given cause for optimism. The Bundeswehr University in Munich published a study in early May showing that singing only disturbs air flow up to half a metre in front of the person.

Freiburg University's Institute for Performing Arts Medicine has also published guidelines for singing partly based on a study it carried out in the southern city of Bamberg with similar results.

However, institute head Bernhard Richter warns: “Contrary to what was sometimes reported, we did not make any aerosol measurements” — tiny particles that have the potential to circulate much further in a room.

The institute published updated guidelines this week that include limiting the number of people in the room and the length of rehearsals, staying two metres apart, keeping rooms ventilated, screening choir members and wearing masks.

'Work in progess'

“This is a work in progress,” Richter said. “Of course singers want clear statements, black and white, but then you have to say, maybe we don't know yet.”

In proposals to the authorities, Germany's Catholic Church has endorsed “quiet singing” in services, as well as restricting numbers and requiring people to stand 1.5 metres apart, though the Protestant Church continues to advise a complete ban.

But the potential dangers of singing became clear once again this month after a virus outbreak at a church service in Frankfurt — where the congregation had been singing and not wearing masks. At least 40 people wereinfected at the service, with 112 affected overall.

READ ALSO: Dozens infected with coronavirus at Frankfurt mass

It remains to be seen whether singing can be controlled at other events in Germany, such as Bundesliga football matches, which are being played behind closed doors until further notice.

Singing could also potentially spread the virus at large events such as rock concerts and the Oktoberfest beer festival, where rowdy singing is an integral of the proceedings — undoubtedly one of the reasons it has been cancelled for 2020.

A spokesman for the interior ministry told AFP that since all major events are banned until at least August 31st in Germany anyway, this remains a “hypothetical question”.

“It depends on how the infection situation develops,” he said.

By Femke Colborne

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COVID-19 RULES

Bavaria pushes for stricter Covid regulations in autumn

Health ministers across Germany's 16 states are debating the government's new Covid plan - and politicians in Bavaria say they want more clarity.

Bavaria pushes for stricter Covid regulations in autumn

On Tuesday, federal and state health ministers planned to discuss the Covid protection proposals for autumn and winter presented last week by Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP).

However, some states and politicians are not satisfied with the plans. 

Under the proposals, masks will remain mandatory in air and long-distance transport, as well as clinics, nationwide. But federal states will be able to choose themselves whether to introduce further measures like mandatory masks on public and regional transport.

States will also have the power to take tougher Covid measures if the situation calls for it, such as mandatory masks indoors, but lockdowns and school closures have been ruled out. 

READ ALSO Masks and no lockdowns: Germany’s new Covid plan from autumn to Easter

The draft law states that there can be exceptions from wearing masks in indoor spaces, such as restaurants, for recently Covid-vaccinated or recovered people. 

But Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek (CSU) told DPA that these planned exemptions were not justified because vaccinated and recovered people can still transmit infections. “There are clear gaps in the current draft law,” said the CSU politician.

Dominik Spitzer, health policy spokesman for the FDP parliamentary group in the Bavarian state parliament, also questioned this exception, saying the rules “simply made no sense”.

“With the current virus variant, that would be impossible to convey, since even vaccinated people can continue to carry the virus,” the FDP politician told Bavarian broadcaster BR24. 

The coalition government’s graduated plan under the new Infection Protection Act, is set to be in force from October 1st until April 7th next year. 

The powers for the states are a first step, “but they do not go far enough for us”, Holetschek added, while calling for some points to be tightened up. “We need strong guidelines for autumn and winter.”

Holetschek said the government needed to tighten up the criteria with which states can adopt and enforce more effective measures to protect against the spread of Covid-19.

READ ALSO: Could Germany see a ‘patchwork’ of Covid rules?

Meanwhile, CDU health politician Erwin Rüddel said Germany was on the “wrong track” and the country should find “a completely different approach” to Covid policy than it has so far.

He accused the coalition government of being in “panic mode” and said he doubted the Bundestag would pass the proposals.

“I believe, there will be significant changes (to the draft)”, he said.

But the chairperson of the doctors’ association Marburger Bund, Susanne Johna, backed the plans.

“The proposal for the new Infection Protection Act gives the states sufficient possibilities to react adequately to the infection situation,” Johna told the Rheinische Post on Tuesday.

“The states can take regionally adapted measures to protect people if the need arises. I can’t understand why this concept is being called into question right away.”

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