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‘If Germany opens up now we’ll gamble away our success,’ warns Health Minister

German Health Minister Jens Spahn has defended border closures and warned against relaxing Covid-19 measures too quickly in the fight against the virus and variants.

'If Germany opens up now we'll gamble away our success,' warns Health Minister
Health Minister Jens Spahn on Friday. Photo: DPA

In a press conference on Friday Spahn said the decreasing number of infections in Germany was an “encouraging” sign.

“But they have not yet fallen enough for us to be able to relax the measures now,” he added. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders on Wednesday extended the Covid-19 shutdown until at least March 7th – with some exceptions. States can open schools and daycare centres earlier if they choose, and hairdressers can reopen from March 1st.

However, Spahn warned against moving too quickly.

“If we open up now, we'll gamble away the success we've had so far,” he said, adding that the coronavirus mutations were too dangerous to risk making the wrong move.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany's extended Covid-19 measures – and opening plans

Spahn pointed out that the measures taken to fight the virus were also effective against its mutations.

The Health Minister said he expected the number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents in a period of seven days (7-day incidence) to fall below 60 soon. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at around 62.

German states should get down to a stable level of 35 new cases per 100,000 residents to open more of public life. Previously, authorities had been aiming for 50 cases per 100,000 people – but this goal was changed due to the variants.

Source: Our World in Data

Spahn defended Germany's decision to close borders to areas where virus mutations are widespread, including the Czech Republic and Austria's Tyrol region.

The step was “unavoidable” he said.

Flu cases dramatically down – but variants spreading

Robert Koch Institute (RKI) boss Lothar Wieler said on Friday that coronavirus restrictions had relieved the burden on the health system, particularly because other infectious diseases, as well as Covid-19, had been curbed.

Apart from reducing Covid-19 cases, Wieler said there have been significantly fewer cases of flu in Germany.

Normally, thousands of cases are registered in Germany every week in winter, whereas at present there are only 20 to 30 at most. This relieves the burden on doctors' surgeries and hospitals, he said.

Wieler said this is particularly important because more contagious variants of coronavirus are expected to make it more difficult to combat the pandemic.

“We have to at least slow down the spread of the variants,” Wieler said. And new variants must be prevented from emerging, he added.

Last week, the mutation B1.1.7 was responsible for about six percent of the new cases. New data on the spread should be available in the coming week, he said.

The spread of the variants in Germany is considered a decisive factor on whether the infection figures will continue to fall – or rise again.

Some experts have even called for the country to tighten measures rather than loosen them in response to the variants.

READ ALSO: Should Germany's lockdown be tightened further over variants?

Germany on right track

Overall, however, RKI head Wieler said Germany is on the right track.

The number of cases have clearly gone down, but that is not an all-clear. The situation is stabilising in many intensive care units, but it is still tense, Wieler said.

“And unfortunately, a lot of people are still dying in connection with Covid-19,” he added.

During the pandemic, more than 64,000 people have died in Germany so far. Therefore, new infections must be prevented: “Every infection is one too many,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the debate about the vaccination strategy, Health Minister Spahn announced that he would talk to the Standing Committee on Vaccination to examine priority groups.

He wants to check whether primary school teachers and educators could be placed in a higher priority group. They are currently in group three.

Spahn also said he wants to look into fines against people who illegally jump the queue for vaccinations.

READ ALSO: Germany aims to offer priority groups and all over 60s first vaccine by end of June

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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