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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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

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

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.