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HEALTH

German slaughterhouse’s cooling system ‘helped spread virus’

The air cooling system used in a German slaughterhouse helped spread the coronavirus among hundreds of workers, a hygiene expert said Wednesday, a day after the mass outbreak triggered renewed lockdowns in the area.

German slaughterhouse's cooling system 'helped spread virus'

More than 1,500 out of 7,000 employees have tested positive so far at the Tönnies meat processing plant in the western district of Gütersloh in the country's single biggest COVID-19 cluster to date.

Professor Martin Exner, a hygiene expert at the University of Bonn tasked by Gütersloh district to study the outbreak, told a press conference that the plant's air filtration system had contributed to the spread of virus-laden aerosol droplets.

READ ALSO: 'These clusters will continue to occur': Can Germany keep on top of new coronavirus outbreaks?

The ventilation system is aimed at keeping temperatures at a cool 6-10 degrees Celsius but continually recycles the same untreated air into the room, said Exner.

“This has so far been an overlooked risk factor” in the pandemic, he told reporters, warning that the finding would have “big consequences” for other slaughterhouses as well.

He stressed that the cooling system was just “one factor” to explain the rapid spread of the virus in the slaughterhouse, and that wearing face masks and keeping a safe distance were key to controlling the transmission.

Abattoirs have emerged as hotspots of coronavirus outbreaks in a slew of countries, including the United States, France and Britain.

In Germany, the outbreaks have shone a spotlight on the dire working conditions in abattoirs where low-paid employees, often from Bulgaria and Romania, work in close proximity and live in shared accommodation.

Now that air cooling systems were understood to play a role in the virus spread, Exner said discussions were needed to come up with solutions and possibly government-imposed regulations.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany's new local coronavirus lockdowns

“The technology is there” to fix the problem, he said, pointing to high-performance mobile air filters that remove pollutants or the microbe-killing UV lights that are used in hospital air conditioning systems.

The virus cluster at the Tönnies slaughterhouse prompted authorities in Gütersloh and a neighbouring district to reimpose lockdowns on more than 600,000 people on Tuesday.

READ ALSO: More than 1,300 workers test positive: Germany fights to control coronavirus spread at meat plant

It was the first major setback since Germany began relaxing restrictions in early May.

At Wednesday's press conference, Gütersloh district commissioner Sven-Georg Adenauer said early indications suggested the cluster had not spread from Tönnies to the general population yet.

Of the 230 test results that have come back to date, 229 came back negative and one was unclear, he said, adding that it gave “a small glimmer of hope” that the outbreak was contained.

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COVID-19 RULES

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has announced plans for a "prompt" end to mandatory masks on buses and trains.

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

If infection levels and hospitalisations remain low, the end of the mask-wearing rule could come as soon as December or January.

“We are convinced that the mask requirement in public transport could also be phased out either in mid-December or early next year, if the numbers remain reasonably stable and there are no new mutations,” Söder explained on Monday, following a meeting with the CSU executive committee. 

A decision on when to end the measure would be made “promptly”, he added.

The CSU politician had said last week that the sinking infection rates meant that compulsory masks were no longer appropriate and that the mandate could be changed to a recommendation. 

No set date for change

The latest version of Bavaria’s Infection Protection Act – which lays out an obligation to wear masks on public transport as one of the few remaining Covid rules – is currently due to expire on December 9th.

State ministers could decide whether to let obligatory masks on buses and trains lapse on this date as early as next week, or they could decide to initially extend the legislation and set an alternative date for ending the rule.

Regardless of their decision, FFP2 masks will continue to be mandatory on long-distance public transport until at least April next year, when the nationwide Infection Protection Act is due to expire.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

Speaking to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, Florian Herrmann (CSU), head of the State Chancellery, confirmed that Covid-19 had been discussed in passing.

However, no decisions or discussions were made on how to proceed after the expiry of the regulation, he said.

According to Herrmann, the fact that Covid was no longer the “dominant topic” in the cabinet under “enormous tension” shows “that we are returning to normality” in a gradual transition from pandemic to endemic. 

As of Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 108 in Bavaria, down from 111 the previous day. However, experts have cast doubt on how meaningful the incidence is in light of the fact that fewer people are taking tests.

Nevertheless, the 133 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the Free State falls well below the 600 threshold for a ‘red alert’. With Omicron causing less severe courses of illness than previous variants, politicians have increasingly focussed on hospitalisation statistics to gauge the severity of the situation.

‘A risk-benefit trade-off’

Bavaria is the second federal state to announce plans to relax its mask-wearing rules in recent weeks.

On November 14th, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein announced that it would be ending obligatory FFP2 masks on public transport and urged other states to do the same. From January 2023, masks on public transport will only be recommended rather than mandated for passengers on local buses and trains. 

However, the Federal Ministry of Health has urged states not to loosen their rules too quickly.

Given that infection rates are likely to spike again in winter, “there’s no basis for loosening restrictions”, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD).

Physicians are also split on whether an end to masks on public transport is appropriate.

READ ALSO: Will Germany get rid of masks on public transport?

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at the German Hospital Day in Düsseldorf on November 14th. Lauterbach is against the lifting of the mask-wearing rule. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Christoph Spinner, a virologist at the University Hospital in Munich, told Süddeutsche Zeitung he believed it was time to put the decision on mask-wearing back into the hands of individuals.

“Why not? The incidences are low, the danger of Covid-19 has dropped significantly and mortality has also decreased,” he said. 

But the Bavarian General Practitioners’ Association spoke out against the move, arguing that – unlike a trip to a restaurant or cinema – people often have no choice but to travel on public transport.

“If the obligation to wear a mask in public transport is maintained, this will help to protect against a Covid infection on the way to work by bus or train – especially in view of the discontinuation of the obligation to isolate in the event of a Covid infection,” they explained.

Bavaria is one of four states to have recently ended mandatory isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein both scrapped their isolation mandate last week, while Hesse removed its obligation on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

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