German health expert warns of ‘fourth Covid wave’ due to variants and travellers

The Social Democratic (SPD) health expert Karl Lauterbach has warned of a new wave of coronavirus infections through virus mutations and returning travellers.

German health expert warns of 'fourth Covid wave' due to variants and travellers
Travellers wait at Frankfurt's Airport on Tuesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

The newly-named Delta variant, which was first detected in India, is likely to spread to numerous European countries in the coming months, Lauterbach told the Funke Mediengruppe newspapers on Thursday. 

“Due to travellers, the mutant will also spread extensively in Germany in the autumn at the latest.”

The extent is still unclear, but it must be assumed that a new wave of infections could come at the end of this summer, said Lauterbach, the SPD’s health spokesman who has become a high profile figure in the pandemic.

It could also be that a new virus mutation spreads in the autumn, “which we don’t know yet,” the SPD politician told the news network.

According to data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the Delta variant (B.1.617.2), which was classified as a cause for concern a few weeks ago, continues to play a minor role in Germany.

READ ALSO: How worried should Germany be about the Covid variant from India?

Its share detected in tested Covid-19 samples from the week of May 17th-23rd was 2.1 percent, according to an RKI report released Wednesday evening. In the weeks before, the proportion had increased slightly but steadily, up to 2.4 percent.

According to the RKI data, the variant thus has the second-largest share in Germany, albeit with an enormous gap: the alpha variant (B.1.1.7), originally detected in the UK, comes in at around 93 percent of all detected coronavirus cases. This variant has spread rapidly internationally since the end of 2020.

Beta (B.1.351), first found in South Africa, and gamma (P.1.), first found in Brazil, the other variants classified as a cause for concern, were found in even smaller numbers.

Lauterbach said that, in addition to booster vaccinations, it could also become necessary to vaccinate the general population with a modified substance that would then be effective against a possible new mutation.

However for the time being, Lauterbach said that he expected low and stable infection figures, with the 7-day incidence hovering around 35. 

After two days of slightly increasing infections, Germany’s 7-day incidence on Thursday dropped to 34.1 new infections per 100,000 people in the population.

The following graph from DPA shows cases the 7-day incidence around Germany as of Thursday morning.

The figure is down from 36.8 the day before, and 41 the previous week. In total, the RKI recorded 4,640 new infections in the past 24 hours. 

READ ALSO: ‘Summer will be good’: Has Germany broken the Covid third wave?

Preparing in advance

On Wednesday, German Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) also said that he was already preparing for a fourth wave in the event it should occur.

“I have already started the talks with experts and the Robert Koch Institute,” Spahn said Wednesday on German broadcaster ZDF’s Morgenmagazin.

Spahn’s vigilance also has to do with the fact that last year, after a summer with low 7-day incidences, the situation suddenly deteriorated in September and October.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister ‘wants to prepare’ for possible fourth Covid wave

Over the past couple of weeks, Germany has begun opening public life again, including both outdoor and indoor areas of restaurants and cafes, fitness studios, and museums. 

Many states have already reopened tourism infrastructure, such as hotels, or have plans to do so in the coming weeks.

However, Spahn said that, due to Germany’s vaccine campaign – which has seen around 45 percent of the population receive at least one shot so far – and cautious reopening steps, that there is unlikely to be a sudden spike in infections this year.

READ ALSO: German cabinet approves decision to open up vaccines to all starting on Monday

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EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

Due to high Covid infection numbers throughout the summer, it’s now possible to get a sick note from a doctor over the phone again for some illnesses. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

What’s happened?

In spring 2020, German authorities changed the law so that people with a mild upper respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold, were able to get an incapacity to work certificate or AU-Bescheinigung by simply calling and speaking to their GP.

The rule was extended several times and finally reversed on June 1st this year due to falling infection figures. Since then people have had to go back to the practice – or do a video call if the doctor’s office has that system in place – to get a sick note.

Now, due to a decision by the Joint Federal Committee, the regulation has been reintroduced and patients can call their GP again for a sick note.

Can I get a sick note over the phone for any illness?

No. As before, the regulation only applies to patients suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Though Covid has not explicitly been named in the announcement, it seems that it is intended to be covered by the regulation.

If the doctor is convinced that the patient is unfit for work after a telephone consultation, then they can issue a sick note for up to seven days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes around doctor’s notes in Germany you should know

If the symptoms persist after seven days, the certificate can be extended once more for another week.

Why now?

According to the Chairman of the G-BA, Josef Hecken, the regulation has been introduced now as a response to rising Covid numbers and in anticipation of the cold and flu season in the coming months: “We want to avoid full waiting rooms in doctors’ offices and the emergence of new infection chains,” he said.

The telephone sick leave rule is a simple, proven and uniform nationwide solution for that, he said. The rule is also necessary because video consultation hours are not yet available everywhere.

What else should I know?

The health insurer DAK is calling for telephone sick leave in the case of light respiratory diseases to be made possible on a permanent basis in Germany. DAK’s CEO Andreas Storm said that this should “not always be up for debate, because it has proven itself.” 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The social association VdK also welcomed the reintroduction of the rule. The VdK’s President Verena Bentele said that the regulation would help to protect high-risk groups in particular from potential infections.

What are the rules to know about sick notes in Germany?

Germany has a strict system in place. If you are sick, you need to give your employer a Krankmeldung (notification of sickness) before the start of work on the first day (of your illness).

However, you also need to hand in a Krankschreibung (doctor’s note) on the fourth day of your illness. Some employments contracts, however, require you to submit a sick not earlier than the fourth day so check with your boss or HR on that point.