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ANALYSIS: At what point could Germany begin easing Covid restrictions?

ANALYSIS: At what point could Germany begin easing Covid restrictions?
People running in Dortmund during the winter shutdown. Photo: DPA
There is good news: Covid-19 cases are decreasing in Germany. If this trend continues when should restrictions on daily life be lifted? Here's what scientists say.

What's happening?

For the first time in three months the number of Covid-19 infections per 100,000 residents over a seven day period (the 7-day incidence) has fallen below 100.

The Robert Koch Institute reported a 7-day incidence of 98 on Thursday January 28th. The last time the value was below 100 was on October 29th. The number hit a peak just before Christmas – on December 22nd the 7-day incidence was 197.6.

Germany has repeatedly said it aims to get this number down to 50 per 100,000. So when might we reach this goal? And can we think about relaxing measures?

READ ALSO: Germany's coronavirus infection rate falls below 100 for first time in months

What do experts say?

These numbers are encouraging and show that people in Germany have been cutting down on social contacts and sticking to measures.

If the positive development continues, the government's target of 50 Covid-19 infections per 100,000 people would likely be achieved by the middle to end of February.

But scientists also believe that pinning hopes on a quick relaxation of measures after that sends the wrong signal.

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Germany should not gamble away its success, physicist Viola Priesemann of the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organisation told German daily Welt.

In her view, more freedom and the reopening of public life should only happen if the incidence rate is reduced to or below 10 – as it was last summer.

Last year, an incidence rate of 50 was defined as the threshold up to which Germany's nearly 400 health offices could keep the situation under control, in other words be able to track and trace all contacts of infected people and order them into quarantine.

German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, have previously said once that goal is reached, the country can discuss opening public life again.

But new problems are emerging.

READ ALSO: Is this Germany's roadmap to head out of Covid-19 lockdown?

Should the 7-day infection rate target be well under a rate of 50?

A growing number of experts say Germany should be aiming for an even lower coronavirus incidence rate.

Social Democrat health expert Karl Lauterbach tweeted on Wednesday: “I will argue for continuation of the lockdown” – until an incidence of 25 is reached.

For Priesemann, getting under a 7-day incidence rate of 100 is a small interim goal. She believes the country should aim to get the number down to 50, then 25 and finally to 12.5.

It's a path worthwhile for everyone, the researcher said, comparing the situation to a fire. 

“There is no such thing as being half in control with fire,” she said.

What do the variants mean?

She is not alone in her opinion. Charité virologist Christian Drosten has already warned against loosening the measures too quickly before the majority of vaccinations are carried out.

Other virologists would also like to see goals move beyond the target mark of 50. This is also due to variants of the virus that are more contagious.

“In Germany, we see a weekly decrease in new infections of around 20 percent,” calculates Sebastian Binder, a systems immunologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research.

“This would mean that the mark of 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants per week would be reached around mid-February.”

He said the institute was working on simulations of how quickly the mutations would take hold and how that might affect the incidence of infection.

There are no concrete results yet.

“But it is quite clear that the British variant – if it prevails – requires significantly stricter measures to achieve a stabilisation or decrease in the number of cases,” said Binder. Right now it is very important to stop the spread of this variant as far as possible.

“In general, the UK's experience is worrying,” the scientist added. “With the current reduction, I think relaxations in mid-February are risky if you want to keep case numbers low.”

Otherwise, he fears another lockdown down the line. “This is true, by the way, even with the known virus type, but even more so with the risk of spreading the new variant,” Binder added.

He does however believe Germany has a good chance of regaining control of the pandemic – at an infection level like last summer and without harsh general restrictions.

“In such a scenario, it is possible to react locally in an adapted way if outbreaks occur,” he said.

Regions could get by with keeping a distance, wearing masks, keeping good hygiene and few other restrictions.

“But at the current rate, even without relaxations, it will take until mid-April before we are below 10 cases per week per 100,000 inhabitants,” Binder said.

READ ALSO: Germany plans new travel bans over Covid-19 variants

Testing and vaccination capacities are limited, and there is no answer yet to the question of how long immunity lasts when people are vaccinated.

The higher the number of cases, the more likely it is that new virus variants will increase throughout the population before many people have had a chance to be vaccinated.

“And then you're almost back to square one,” said Priesemann.

After all the progress Germany has made in recent months thanks to tight restrictions that is the last place anyone in the country wants to find itself.

 


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