Why Covid cases remain high on the German border with Austria

Why Covid cases remain high on the German border with Austria
People walk near Könnigsee in Bavara, which lies close to the Austrian border. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel
Germany's Covid numbers have remained relatively stable in the past few weeks - but they are stubbornly high in some places, including at the Austrian border. Why?

What are the latest numbers?

The 7-day incidence in Bavaria stands at 91.8 Covid-19 infections per 100,000 people – the third worst-hit German state right now, behind Thuringia (with 103.7 cases per 100,000 people) and Bremen (with an incidence of 96.0).

Across Germany, the incidence – which for much of the pandemic was the measure used for bringing in new restrictions – has been steady in the mid-60s since the start of October. On Wednesday the nationwide 7-day incidence stood at 65.4.

READ ALSO: German schools and Kitas face higher number of Covid outbreaks

The situation is still particularly bad around the border with Austria. Some districts have an incidence rate at over 200, including Berchtesgadener Land, which is currently seeing 264.3 Covid cases per 100,000 people. 

Districts near the Bavarian border have seen consistently high Covid cases throughout the pandemic. Here’s a look at why that could be the case.

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Lots of border crossers mean higher numbers

Virologist Ulrike Protzer, a professor at the Technical University of Munich, told Bavarian broadcaster BR24 that it’s striking to look at how the Covid situation has developed in regions near the border.

According to Protzer, the numbers there were and are always higher than in the rest of Bavaria – and also in the rest of Germany. This does not only affect Bavaria, but also other federal states such as Saxony.

The map below by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) shows the number of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people within seven days. The dark red areas are where Covid cases are highest, including around the Austrian border in the south-west.

Germany map shows districts with Covid cases per 100,000 people within seven days.
Germany map shows districts with Covid cases per 100,000 people within seven days. The darker the colour, the more cases logged there. Source: Robert Koch Institute

“This is very much influenced by how high the incidence is in the respective neighbouring country,” said Protzer. Due to cross-border commuters for work, holidaymakers or weekend tourists, there are transmissions from neighbouring countries where the incidence is higher than here, the virologist said.

In Bavaria’s neighbouring Austrian regions, the figures are high: in Salzburg, for instance, there are 185 Covid cases per 100,000 people and in Upper Austria 198 (as of October 12th).

Bavaria has imposed border controls throughout the Covid crisis.

Bavaria also has long external borders compared to other federal states. Figures from the Federal Employment Agency also show that Bavaria has the highest number of cross-border commuters with 46,649 workers residing abroad. This is followed by Baden-Württemberg (26,341), North Rhine-Westphalia (21,202) and Saxony (20,386).

Vaccination rate affects infection figures

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek of the CSU emphasised that it is now a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”. According to the State Office of Public Health, the incidence is 22.8 Covid cases per 100,000 vaccinated people, while it is 201.1 per 100,000 unvaccinated people. The figure for Bavaria as a whole is 92.8 as we mentioned above.

Virologist Protzer said the low vaccination rate contributes to the incidence of infection. In some border areas, she says, it has not been possible to convince people to get vaccinated. But even in some areas with high vaccination rates, she says, there are elevated levels. “That’s why I suspect that cross-border traffic is contributing to high numbers. But a high vaccination rate would help enormously in this area.”

READ ALSO: German vaccination rate is ‘irrelevant’ says virologist

People misjudge dangers

According to Dieter Frey, professor of social psychology at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, studies show that people often underestimate the danger of diseases. In the case of Covid-19, he says that most people think they are not infected.

At the same time, they believe that the people with whom they have close contact would not infect them – i.e. work colleagues, friends, family. “And consequently, they no longer observe any distance rules there either.”

Particularly in rural communities – such as those around the Austrian border – social networks are tighter, said Frey, and that means people may be less likely to social distance.

Infections mostly indoors

The Covid virus is mainly transmitted through personal contact. People become infected when they have close contact with others and inhale aerosols, Protzer said.

This mainly (but not always) happens indoors. Another reason, according to Protzer, is infections at work, “or when I’m outside and have the misfortune to run directly into droplets from talking, sneezing or coughing,” she added.

Now that the colder weather is here, it could be that the Covid situation gets worse across Germany as people spend more time indoors.


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