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How did Germany turbocharge its vaccine rollout – and what can it do better?

Since the start of April, Germany has shifted gear on its vaccine rollout, breaking European records on the number of jabs delivered in a day. What happened - and can it keep up the momentum?

How did Germany turbocharge its vaccine rollout - and what can it do better?
People waiting for the AstraZeneca vaccine after a doctor set up a clinic in a supermarket in Pforzheim, Baden Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Schmidt

Anyone who lives in Germany will know how frustrating the vaccine rollout has been thanks to supply issues, bureaucracy difficulties and the inflexible vaccination prioritisation list. But things shifted up a gear after Easter.

Overall, Germany has now administered more than 35 million vaccine doses against coronavirus. Around 27.3 million were first doses and about 7.8 million were for second jabs.

Up to May 10th, a total of 33.3 percent of the population had received at least one shot, and 9.6 percent of the population had been fully inoculated.

More vaccine supplies 

Perhaps the main reason Germany’s inoculation campaign got off to a frustratingly slow start was because of the EU-wide supply issues for coronavirus vaccines.

Here in Germany we watched as countries like Israel, the US and the UK – among others – jabbed their populations at super speed, while our own rollout and that of other EU countries fell short.

Now many of these countries are opening up widely again with low Covid rates, while Germany is still lagging behind.

The chart above by Our World in Data shows the breakdown of vaccinations by those that have been partly or fully vaccinated.

The lack of vaccines was blamed on the purchasing strategy of the EU – the Commission is said to have signed its contracts too late and paid the pharma firms too little money.

Meanwhile, the main providers in the first part of the year – BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca – all failed to deliver the agreed amount of doses for the first quarter of the year, further impacting EU countries.

It led to some of the 430 vaccine centres across Germany being underused or even lying empty. Some even had to close when they had run out of vaccine doses. 

This changed in the second quarter. From April onwards, Germany received significantly more deliveries of vaccine doses. 

By March 22nd 2021, over 14.3 million vaccine doses from BioNtech, AstraZeneca and Moderna had been delivered to the federal states.

In the week after Easter alone, almost 3.3 million doses of vaccines were delivered throughout the country. 

And in the last week of April, 5.4 million doses were delivered, 3.2 million of which were expected to be administered in doctors’ practices.

The federal government says Germany is expected to receive a total of 300 million doses if all possible vaccine candidates are approved. The vaccine Johnson & Johnson, which only requires one dose, has also now been approved and is involved in the rollout. 

READ ALSO: Germany makes J&J vaccine available to all adults: What you need to know

Family doctors giving out jabs

This is arguably the biggest gamechanger. Allowing GPs to vaccinate their patients led to a significant boost to Germany’s vaccine drive.

It’s evident in the numbers – in the first week that GPs joined the vaccination effort (from April 6th) Germany hit its first major achievement – the country vaccinated 656,000 people in a day. Up until that point, no more than 367,000 vaccine doses had been administered in Germany on any given day.

People queueing up for a jab in the Chorweiler district of Cologne. The western city has started giving out vaccinations in socially disadvantaged areas. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

These numbers have remained consistently high, at least on weekdays. And on Wednesday April 28th, the country smashed a European record by delivering 1.116 million jabs into the arms of residents.

A week later a similar amount of shots were given.

READ ALSO: Germany reaches milestone of 30 percent of population vaccinated against Covid

According to the Health Ministry, a total of 31.4 million vaccine doses against Covid-19 were administered in Germany up to and including May 4th. Of these, 25.4 million doses were given in vaccination centers and 5.9 million in medical practices. 

The head of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians, Andreas Gassen, praised GPs for their role. He said: “This is actually probably the decisive milestone in the fight against the pandemic.”

So what is it about doctors that helps the campaign? Well, there are now around 65,000 of them taking part so there’s lots more medical professionals giving out jabs.

But it’s also about the close relationship they have with their patients, which can help encourage those with vaccine hesitancy.

Doctors can also call patients up at short notice if they have leftover doses at the end of the day.

This localised way of delivering jabs into arms is a huge positive. If you only need to go down to the road to your local GP who you’ve known for yours for the vaccine rather than trailing across a town to a centre full of strangers, it can make the experience much less daunting.

The chart above shows the daily number of Covid-19 vaccination doses administered per 100 people. This is shown as the rolling seven-day average.  Germany has climbed to a higher position in this chart in recent weeks.

And the reason it took so long for them to join the campaign? The government said they didn’t have enough supplies in the first quarter to provide for both the vaccination centres and GP practices. So the introduction of doctors goes hand in hand with the availability of vaccines.

Also let’s not forget that giving out Covid-19 vaccines in practices is worthwhile for doctors from a business perspective. According to Wirtschafts Woche, a practice that carries out 20 vaccinations a day could potentially generate around €400 additional income.

Lifting the priority list on some vaccines 

Another big moment in Germany’s vaccine campaign came when some states – initially Berlin, Bavaria, Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, announced in April they were to lift the priority order for the AstraZeneca vaccine, meaning it could be offered to everyone over the age of 18 regardless if they were a ‘risk’ group or not.

Due to risks connected to blood clotting conditions, Germany had advised that AstraZeneca should only be given to the over 60s. But those under 60 who wanted it could get it after a detailed consultation with a doctor.

Last week all federal states opened up AstraZeneca to all, and on Monday the same happened with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

It means that anyone over 18 who wants one of these vaccines can ask their own GP for an appointment, they can call or email other doctors’ offices or they can keep an eye out for open clinics where doctors give out the jab. These are often advertised online or passed around on social media.

For example, some doctors have been publishing online when they plan to give out the vaccine, and people queue up for it, like in the below tweet from Berlin.

Increasing flexibility has led to more people outside of high priority groups receive a vaccination.

The states who made this move first did it to avoid wasting doses. Throughout the vaccination campaign in Germany, reports have emerged of AstraZeneca doses being left unused.

Last month Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek said: “Every dose of vaccine must be administered as quickly as possible.”

How can Germany keep the momentum up?

The country is relying on a steady supply of vaccines over the coming months. If that box is ticked, it makes everything else easier.

Starting in June, in-house company doctors nationwide will be given the green light to go ahead and vaccinate staff. That will see entire workforces inoculated against Covid-19.

Some regions are already running pilot projects with companies.

Employees of the chemical and pharmaceutical company Merck KGaA in front of the Covid vaccination centre earlier in May. Hesse has started a pilot project with five pharmaceutical companies to vaccinate employees. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa/POOL | Arne Dedert

Authorities, including Cologne and Berlin, are also going into socially-deprived areas to help deliver the vaccine to people in communities with mobile clinics.

Bavarian premier Markus Söder said recently that the southern state will look to give the vaccine out at supermarkets and other locally accessible places. Other states will likely follow.

READ ALSO: Bavaria plans vaccines ‘in supermarkets, schools and pharmacies’

Countries that have already achieved a high level of vaccination coverage for the population, such as the USA or Israel, have opted for different ways of getting injections to people. They are often delivered in the form of drive-ins with mobile teams.

What can Germany do better?

Despite a clear acceleration of vaccine delivery in Germany, we’ve heard anecdotally that there are still people who belong to ‘risk’ priority groups who have not been vaccinated yet.

Readers of The Local have also reported that they’ve struggled to find information or get an appointment even though they qualify for a shot.

This could be down to bureaucratic failures in states when trying to secure appointments. It’s also not particularly helpful that each state in Germany has a different way of doing things, and processes change at short notice.

For instance, Berlin recently stopped sending out letters to eligible people and published online that people who qualify should book appointments themselves. But does everyone know that? 

Some local authorities have also been slammed for not making a bigger effort to carry out vaccinations at the weekend and on holidays. At Easter some states announced they were closing their vaccination centres on the public holidays.

Another factor is the behaviour of people. It appears you are more likely to get a vaccine if you push for it, ask your GP repeatedly or have the time and resources to contact lots of different doctors.

You might know a person with a contact for a vaccinating doctor, or you might be lucky enough to receive an appointment from your own doctor.

However, if you are waiting for a vaccine appointment to come, it might take a lot longer.

This points to a long-standing problem with Germany’s organisation of the vaccine rollout: it isn’t very logical, and a lot of it depends on luck. 

As the country looks to lift the priority list and open up vaccines to everyone over 18 some time in June, the infrastructure to offer appointments in many more places will have to be there so that people can access jabs more easily.

And as the German government has already relaxed Covid restrictions for vaccinated people, lots of residents want their jabs as soon as possible so they can get more freedoms and back to some kind of normality.

READ ALSO: ‘Mood is getting more aggressive: Thousands of people in Germany caught skipping line for Covid vaccine

Member comments

  1. “What can Germany do better?”

    Thank you very much for this article.

    I consider that the German Federal government issued a very good action plan for vaccination of the people living in the country (namely, the prioritization law – Impfverordung). But unfortunately, the Federal government did not develop a clear implementation plan for this action plan (perhaps leaving it for the State governments). Permanent changes in the action plan and in its implementation do not add to the solution of the problem, and make it even worse. And here is a major problem.

    1. What does the prioritization mean if there is no chance to get an appointment in the vaccination centers since January? My wife and I belong to priority group 2 (paragraph 3, no. 2 of the Impfverordung), and we were neither invited for a vaccination center, nor we had a chance to get an appointment for a vaccination. I have no time to call 116117 every hour or even every day for an appointment – but when I was successful once (by end April), a soft calm women voice explained me that there is no space for an appointment (“And sorry that I cannot assist you”, she told). The website 116117 is even more funny place – since January (!) when trying to get an appointment, I get the same report: “No free dates were found in your region. Please try again later … As soon as sufficient vaccine and capacity is available, vaccination centers will post more appointments.” It is better just to close down the service as useless …

    A normal appointment procedure in the situation of a lack of products (e.g. vaccines) would be to place people in a waiting list according to their priority certified by a doctor or by a passport/ID, and people could see a progress in the waiting list and access the time before they get an appointment. This procedure would be transparent for all, and could help a lot.

    2. In April, physicians have been allowed to vaccinate people. Great! But in practice, it is almost impossible to get an appointment because of a few major issues. The first one is the number of vaccines they receive everyday. The number of those who wants to be vaccinated is greater than the number of vaccines. The second issue is the old problem with appointments of privately and statutory insured people – a privately-insured person will get an appointment at first. So, even we have an excellent Hausartzin and on a list of vaccination, there is a little chance to get it before 7 June, when the prioritization will be dropped. Here a question arises: why the prioritization was introduced if it did not reach its goal, and people even from Group 2 are not yet vaccinated?

    3. In the situation, when there is no formal ways to get a vaccine shot, people start to think about informal ways. But this may contradict the law and equality rights. Moreover, the new regulations related to the “more freedom” for vaccinated people would not add to the solution of the existing serious problem, but make it worse. Too bad, if it happens in Germany, the economically most developed European country! Let us hope for the best …

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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.