Former Berlin Tegel airport gets new life as Covid-19 vaccination centre

Berlin's Tegel airport may be closed, but it's being reborn as a vaccination centre for use in December.

Former Berlin Tegel airport gets new life as Covid-19 vaccination centre

A large “Welcome” sign still hangs outside Berlin's Tegel airport, which closed for good in November.

But thousands of people are soon expected to start walking through its doors again every day, once its Terminal C building has been refitted as a vaccination centre against the novel coronavirus from mid-December.

Germany is hoping to ramp up its immunisation drive in the first quarter of 2021 and is already laying the groundwork for 60 hubs across the country.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany is preparing for the coronavirus vaccination 

While Health Minister Jens Spahn insists that vaccination will not be compulsory, Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament on Thursday that vaccines represented “a light at the end of the tunnel” for Germany.

The country has seen case numbers stabilise since leisure and sporting facilities and indoors dining were closed in early November, but the caseload remains high, with 22,268 new infections and 389 deaths reported on Thursday.

The winter will be tough, but “I believe that we will see significant progress next year,” Merkel said, describing vaccines as a sign of “hope”.

20,000 jabs a day

The federal government will be responsible for the purchase and delivery of the jabs, while the regional states will provide equipment and choose the locations for the vaccination centres. 

At Tegel, “we will be vaccinating 3,000 to 4,000 people a day,” Albrecht Broemme, in charge of setting up the German capital's vaccination centres, told AFP.

Another former airport, Tempelhof — which has been variously used as a refugee centre, a velodrome and an ice rink in the past — has also been designated as a vaccination centre.

With six centres spread across four hubs, it should be possible to vaccinate “20,000 people a day” in the city with a population of 3.8 million, according to Dilek Kalayci, Berlin's health minister.

After its closure in November, pigeons were the only fliers at Berlin's Tegel Airport. Photo: DPA

Achieving this will be “an immense challenge,” she admits, with priority given to vulnerable people or those who are particularly exposed to the virus, such as healthcare workers.

The centres will have to be open from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm every day, including weekends.

Set of Lego

Broemme, a 60-year-old former firefighter, said he worked out his plans for the smooth-running of the Tegel vaccination centre using a set of Lego, building a model with the multi-coloured bricks, complete with walkways and reception centre.

“The general idea is to vaccinate as many people as possible one after the other,” said Broemme.

“I came up with a system, thinking about how many (vaccination) booths we would need and how much space we would need in order to prevent bottlenecks,” he said.

READ ALSO: What's next for Berlin's Tegel airport when it closes in November?

Each visitor will follow a designated route from registration to the actual jab, then on to a consultation with a doctor and finally to “a waiting room” while final checks are performed.

The injection itself “lasts only two minutes” and is done “sitting on a chair”, Broemme said.

“We imagine that all of this will take an hour,” he said against the roar of trucks and vans coming in and out of the airport in the background.

Although work has not yet begun on refitting Terminal C, it has now been sealed off with metal fencing, barbed wire and ample security.

For now, efforts are focused on recruiting staff — not only doctors and nurses, but also logistics and support staff.

Security guards will be hired, too, in case, anti-vaccination activists try to block access to the building, Broemme said.

Germany already has a shortage of hospital staff, so the authorities are hoping to draw on retired nurses, medical students and even flight attendants in need of work.

In Berlin, 200 to 250 people will staff each vaccination centre.

“We've had a lot of applications,” said Broemme, who already helped set up a field hospital for coronavirus patients in the spring.

Strict rules will be imposed to prevent the spread of infection, including compulsory mask-wearing and social distancing.

“It would be a nightmare for me if people were to become infected when they came to be vaccinated,” Broemme said.

By Yannick Pascuet

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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.