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HEALTH

Fears over lack of medical staff in Germany amid coronavirus surge

Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking drastic new curbs, including fresh shutdowns, amid fears over the impact of the coronavirus resurgence.

Fears over lack of medical staff in Germany amid coronavirus surge
A coronavirus testing area at Berlin main station. Photo: DPA

The Chancellor is holding crisis talks on Wednesday with Germany's regional leaders to halt surging coronavirus infections and save the Christmas holiday season.

Germany has seen 449,275 coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, with 14,964 new infections within 24 hours reported on Wednesday. A total of 10,098 people have died so far, according to RKI figures.

The number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care meanwhile has surged from just under 400 in early October to 1,470 by Tuesday.

While there is no shortage of hospital beds or ventilators for now, the “much bigger problem” is a lack of medical staff to cope with a potential surge in intensive care patients, Uwe Janssens of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine (DIVI) told the Funke media group.

Scientists from Germany's Leopoldina Academy, which has Merkel's ear, issued a statement with other experts on Tuesday recommending “a drastic reduction in contacts” if the pandemic is to be brought under control.

Germans also need to keep heeding the guidelines for mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing and airing out rooms, as well as using the corona app, they added.

Friction between states and federal government

The proposed restrictions to come in force from November 4th to the end of the month would limit contact outdoors to people from two households, according to a draft of planned measures.

Schools, daycares and shops will remain open, but hotels will be allowed to offer overnight stays only for “necessary and expressedly non-tourist purposes”.

READ ALSO: Germany's proposed lockdown plan to 'save Christmas': What you need to know

Bars, cafes, restaurants would have to shut, although takeaways and delivery services can keep going.

The aim is to break the infection momentum, “so that no far-reaching restrictions are necessary during the Christmas period”, according to the draft document.

Under the federal system, individual states have the final say on which restrictions to impose, and some less affected regions are likely to bristle at measures that will inflict more economic pain.

The far-left premier of the eastern state of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, has voiced opposition to Merkel's proposal.

The country coped relatively well with the first coronavirus wave earlier in the year but numbers have risen rapidly in recent weeks, as they have across the continent.

Germany's tally of new daily cases now regularly crosses the 10,000 mark, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control.

That is still well below figures seen in neighbouring France, where daily cases have topped 50,000, or Belgium where hospitals are reaching capacity.

But Economy Minister Peter Altmaier warned that Germany was seeing “exponential growth” in case numbers and would probably reach “20,000 new infections per day” by the end of the week.

'Do it right'

Two hard-hit districts in Bavaria have already gone back into lockdown, with schools, kindergartens and nurseries closed and people needing a valid reason to leave their homes.

Bavarian premier Markus Soeder, whose popularity has soared during the pandemic, said time was running out to counter the upward trend and pleaded for tougher, nationally applicable rules.

“Better to do it now and do it right, than late and half-hearted,” he said.

Several cities across Germany have already taken the dramatic step of cancelling their Christmas markets this year, including the famous Nuremberg “Christkindlesmarkt” that usually attracts over two million visitors.

Ahead of Wednesday's talks, Merkel said she understood that the coronavirus measures were asking a lot and stressed that they would only ever be temporary.

“The restrictions serve to protect our citizens and vulnerable groups in particular,” she said, adding that she wanted to avoid “millions of people being excluded from society”.

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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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