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‘The pandemic is driven by our own behaviour’: How can Germany control Covid-19 spread?

As the number of daily cases continues to rise in Germany, The Local spoke to a top epidemiologist to find out what we can expect in the coming weeks, and how people can help the situation.

'The pandemic is driven by our own behaviour': How can Germany control Covid-19 spread?
A market in Neukölln, Berlin, Germany's worst affected coronavirus district. Photo: DPA
How serious is the situation?
When asked by Zeit Online whether the situation in Germany is as serious as it was in April, physicist Dirk Brockmann from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said “Yes, definitely… probably more serious.”
That's because the case numbers are rising rapidly. Since the beginning of October the number of cases has doubled. And the tricky thing about infectious diseases is that as the number of cases increase, exponential growth happens. The growth starts slowly and gets faster and faster, scientists say.
Unlike summer, autumn is no longer about local hotspots caused by isolated outbreaks at workplaces or events, which were contained.
Currently there is a rise in cases in almost all German districts. As early as August, virologist Christian Drosten warned: “While the virus entered the population in the first wave, it will spread from the population in the second wave. Because in the meantime it has spread more and more evenly, across social classes and age cohorts.”
We can now observe this happening in Germany. Although the disease is the same, we are dealing with different dynamics in this resurgence.
What's happening in the health system?
There are real concerns about pressure piling on the health system, and contact tracing becoming too difficult. In Berlin, a major hotspot area right now, officials have already said they are struggling to keep up with contact tracing.
The number of coronavirus patients who are being treated in intensive care units in Germany has gone up significantly. On Thursday, 655 patients with the virus were handled in intensive care units, with 329 receiving oxygen.

The previous week (October 8th) the number stood at 487, and 239 received oxygen. There are currently around 8,700 free ICU beds in Germany, according to the official data.

The RKI has warned that the proportion of Covid-19 cases in the older age groups is “currently considerably increasing”, raising fears there will be more deaths in the coming weeks as this group is more likely to have a more severe reaction to the disease.
“The increase in active cases is a serious situation in Germany, particularly because we can see an increase in health care utilisation,” Tobias Kurth, professor of public health and epidemiology at the Charité in Berlin, told The Local.
“Looking at the neighbouring countries and their consequences should clearly warn us to act now.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday night said this was a “decisive time” for Germany.
“We can see that … infection rates are rising and that we have a very high infection rate in some regions,” Merkel said after the meeting held with state leaders on how to deal with the pandemic this autumn.

“We must therefore prevent an uncontrolled or exponential increase.”

Measures are to be brought in across regions where numbers are rising in a bid to stop the spread and not overload the health system.
What should you do?
Merkel, other politicians and health experts have repeatedly said people in Germany must do their bit to help keep numbers down.
People in Germany have been asked to stick to distance rules, wash hands, wear masks properly when 1.5m distance can't be maintained from others, download the coronavirus app and air rooms regularly.
“Most importantly, do exactly all of that,” said Kurth. He added that people should try and reduce social contact “to a minimum and wear masks when possible – it will help the situation”.
People walking in Dortmund, North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: DPA
Should you work from home (if your employer and line of work allows it)?
There is no official communication from the German government on this issue. Some people have returned to their workplace over the summer but with conditions, such as wearing face masks in office buildings or people coming in on different days to avoid overcrowding.
Kurth said at the moment, with the increase in cases, his advice would be for people in Germany to work from home if they can. “I advise my team to do that, if possible,” he said.
I have a birthday party at the weekend in my flat. Should I cancel it?
People in Germany are being asked to cut down on their social contacts at the moment.
“All citizens are once again asked to critically weigh up in each individual case whether, how and to what extent private celebrations are necessary and justifiable in view of the occurrence of infection,” said the government document drawn up after Wednesday's meeting.
So should you stop indoor private celebrations at the moment? It's up to you, but here's the advice of an expert: “I would advise people to reduce any get together with people that they do not see regularly,” said Kurth. “I think there is good enough communication that (private) parties are one of the drivers (of the spread).”
Is there anything else I should do?
You could consider getting a flu vaccination if you are part of a risk group. This week Health Minister Jens Spahn said Germany has ordered an extra six million doses of flu vaccine so as many people as possible can get a jab to reduce the risk of simultaneous influenza and Covid-19 outbreaks in a bid to protect the health care system.
Spahn said the country, which has a population of 83 million, will have 26 million doses available in total this year.

Vaccinations are voluntary in Germany, and for Covid-19 vaccines there are no plans to change that, Spahn said.

But he urged people who are considered high risk to get the flu jab to help avoid overloading the healthcare system during the pandemic.

“Getting a flu shot will also help,” said Kurth.
What might we see happen to the infection situation in the coming weeks?
“We will see a further increase (in infections),” said Kurth. “The next days are essential, and we all need to understand that the pandemic is driven by the behaviour of us all.
“If we do not stop the trend right now, health professionals will not be able to identify and trace, and consequences for the health care system will follow with a delay of 2-3 weeks.”
Brockmann of the RKI said he could imagine two scenarios after the next weeks. “On the one hand, the measures will take effect in a fortnight and the number of new infections will drop again,” he told Zeit Online. “Or that it will not be enough and then tougher measures will have to be applied again.”
Is another lockdown possible?
Everyone is keen to avoid another shutdown like we saw in March and April. The priorities for Germany are to keep schools and Kitas open, and protect vulnerable groups.
But a lockdown can't be ruled out. Markus Söder, state leader of Bavaria, said after Wednesday's meeting.

“We are actually much closer to the second lockdown than we want to admit,” he said after the meeting.”
“Unfortunately, that is possible although I very much hope that we do not need a full lockdown,” said Kurth. “The consequences will obviously be severe. We should all do what we can to help to avoid it.”

Member comments

  1. I’m so disappointed in people. The ones who believe they can “continue as normal” and have no respect for the well being of others or the economy. It is because of selfish people – out partying, not keeping social distance, travelling etc. – that the rest of us are now in this position.

  2. I am disappointed too. So far, I have lost two elderly family members and 3 work colleagues to Covid-19 related deaths (at various places from DE, Switzerland, Aust and the USA). I feel so many people cannot understand the simple requirements needed to work together and help us protect each other. And in doing so, protecting lives and giving the scientists time and resources to work out more about how this particular virus ‘works’, what the secondary/longer term effects of infection are, collect more population data…all of which will pay off in the longer term. Nup, many still complain about masks (aren’t we over that big chestnut yet!)and still go on holiday and expect a virus to be wished away or worse use it as a political weapon… More people need to revisit their biology 101!

  3. I wish these kind of articles where more empathic towards people who simply the idea of a lockdown and social distancing is a nightmare of anxiety. There are plenty of people out there that do not have the luxury to lockdown with a family or close friends circles. I think everyone should take responsibility to contain this virus, but I also think that moral solidarity for alone, mentality vulnerable people, should be more shown in the media. Remembering people to check out regularity on mentally vulnerable people is as much important as asking them to show solidarity to physical vulnerable people, and thus, should be part of the Covid-19 solidarity recommendations.

  4. @Fred – I’m sorry for your loss. We can certainly understand your disappointment and frustration. Stay well and strong x

    @Raphael – I agree. We need to think of everyone. Stay well.

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For members


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.