Why are Covid infections in Germany rising?
After a period of stagnation, Covid infections are rising dramatically in Germany - even though much of the population is vaccinated. What's going on?
Germany is seeing a rising number of Covid-19 cases, and an increase in the number of patients with coronavirus being admitted to intensive care wards.
This isn't entirely unexpected - experts have been warning for some time that a drastic fourth wave was imminent. They say it's down to a number of factors.
What's the situation compared to last year?
Most of us don't look back on autumn 2020 fondly. A year ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the state ministers agreed on a so-called "lockdown light" as the infection figures skyrocketed. At the time the incidence had climbed above 100 cases per 100,000 people within seven days, and there were more than 18,000 daily infections. That partial lockdown went on to become progressively tougher - and lasted until around May 2021, much to everyone's despair.
A year on and the situation is much more encouraging in some regards - for instance around 66.6 percent of the population is now fully vaccinated, whereas there was no approved Covid-19 vaccine last year.
However, Covid cases are spiking. On Saturday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) recorded more than 24,000 new infections and 86 deaths within 24 hours, as well as a nationwide 7-day incidence of 145.1 Covid infections per 100,000 people. On Monday November 1st, the 7-day incidence had climbed to 154.8.
The situation in intensive care units (ICU) also looks worse than last year: while 1,569 Covid patients were receiving intensive care on October 28th 2020, one year later there are around 1,808 people in ICU with Covid-19.
According to Frankfurt virologist Sandra Ciesek, the increase in new infections and the high occupancy rates in intensive care units mean that "we are even worse off compared to last year", as she stated last Tuesday in the NDR Coronavirus-Update podcast.
One thing is clear: the current Covid-19 numbers cannot be explained by a single cause. There are several factors playing a role in the current sharp increase. Experts say one main reason - and a large difference from autumn 2020 - is the spread of the virus variants.
In particular, the far more transmissible Delta variant of Covid "is contributing to the fact that the virus is now spreading faster," epidemiologist Hajo Zeeb from the Leibniz Institute Bremen told German news site RND. The Delta variant was first discovered in India and has been the dominant virus variant in Germany since the end of June 2021.
"Delta spreads very effectively," said Martin Stürmer, virologist and laboratory manager at the IMD Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Medicine and Diagnostics in Frankfurt.
Stürmer pointed out that politicians are moving towards loosening measures, rather than towards infection prevention.
The general view from the politics world is that the German health system is no longer at risk of becoming overburdened due to the vaccination coverage. That's why Health Minister Jens Spahn believes Germany's Covid 'state of emergency' should be allowed to expire later in November.
But Stürmer said there was too much focus on the end of the "epidemiological emergency" and about a UK-style "Freedom Day", which he says the infection situation doesn't allow yet.
Fewer measures - and concern about virus decreasing
The German government insists that there will be no more lockdowns or school closures in the pandemic. But according to some experts, that means there are not as many resources to combat the spread of the virus.
"In contrast to last year, we now have the vaccinations, but we have also lost weapons against the virus," said Stürmer.
Last year, measures were still strongly based on the 7-day incidence - and due to the drastically rising numbers at that time, the nationwide partial lockdown came into effect on November 2nd.
A supporter of the far-right AfD party holds a placard calling for "No lockdowns ever again". Both the current and future governments have promised that no further lockdowns will occur in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Büttner
"The hospitalisation rate is now the central control button - but there are no nationwide limits on when new measures will be introduced again," said Stürmer.
The RKI reported the hospitalisation incidence on Monday as 3.46 per 100,000 population, but there are large differences in the incidence between the states. Around Christmas time last year, the hospitalisation incidence reached around 15.
Scientists say that people are not as worried about rising Covid numbers and may be fatigued from previous measures.
"The concern for personal health and that of family and relatives has noticeably decreased over the course of a year - also due to vaccinations," said epidemiologist Zeeb.
Virologist Ciesek also spoke of a "habit effect" in the NDR podcast. People have become accustomed to the Covid figures and no longer perceive them as alarming to the same extent, she said.
Experts generally agree that seasonality plays a role in the development of respiratory viruses.
When it comes to Covid, we've often seen spikes in the number of cases when people tend to socialise more indoors in the colder months, rather than outside.
The German government and states have 3G (entry to the vaccinated, recovered and tested people) and 2G (excluding the unvaccinated) entry rules to many public spaces in place. But there is some concern that the rules are not enforced consistently everywhere.
Vaccination rate still too low - and declining immunity
Another reason for the rising numbers is that the vaccination rate in Germany is still too low, experts say.
RKI data shows 85.3 percent of the over 60s are fully vaccinated, and 73 percent of the 18-59-year-olds are fully jabbed. Overall, 66.7 percent of the whole population are inoculated against Covid.
Although the RKI has previously said the vaccination rate could be five percentage points higher than the official stats, Germany is still pushing for a higher take-up.
"The vaccination rate is therefore currently no reason to completely abandon infection prevention," said Stürmer.
Furthermore, there is an increase in vaccination breakthroughs because immunity decreases over time.
"Someone who was vaccinated three quarters of a year ago and is over 70 should actually no longer be considered fully vaccinated according to current knowledge," said Stürmer.
But vaccinations remain the best way out of the pandemic. According to Zeeb, vaccines provide proven protection, especially against severe courses of the disease.
This is also shown by the current situation in intensive care units. Doctors say most patients are unvaccinated.
"A year ago, people with severe courses of disease had to be treated in an intensive care unit because there were no vaccines yet - and even today, it is mostly unvaccinated people who end up in hospital," said Zeeb.
Booster take-up slow
To boost immunity, Germany has been recommending a top-up shot to all risk groups, those over 70 and people who've had the vector vaccines AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson. However, the take-up has been slow.
The government has been criticised for not launching a strong enough booster jab campaign.
Last week Health Minister Spahn then came out and said that everyone in Germany is entitled to a Covid booster jab six months after their last shot (although people who've had Johnson & Johnson can get an mRNA Covid shot after four weeks.)
SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach previously called on authorities to start a fresh booster-vaccine campaign.
He said: “In view of the rising number of cases – also among the elderly – a new vaccination campaign for the use of booster vaccinations in this age group is now absolutely necessary.”
Zeeb also welcomed rapid booster vaccinations - especially for the elderly.
Holidays, neighbouring countries and regional differences
As we've seen in the entire course of the pandemic, there are also strong regional differences. While Thuringia currently has the highest 7-day incidence with around 307 Covid cases per 100,000 people (as of Monday), Saarland is clearly below the nationwide number with an incidence of 72.5
It's also noticeable that the federal states with long external borders - such as Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Saxony - are currently recording high infection figures.
"A possible explanation for the partly high incidence rates in many border regions could be the higher proportion of holidaymakers and cross-border commuters for work from neighbouring countries with high incidence rates," said Zeeb. For example, the 7-day incidence in Austria is currently around 313, in the Netherlands 256.5 - significantly higher than in Germany.
However, the regional differences are also "multifactorial events", said Stürmer. For example, there is also a connection between the varying period of the summer holidays and the incidence.
"The different end of the summer holidays depending on the federal state certainly also had an influence on the incidence of infection," he said.
No more free rapid tests?
Another factor that may be contributing to the rise in cases is that the German government stopped offering free Covid-19 antigen tests to all on October 11th.
Now people have to pay a fee to take a test. The aim is to increase the pressure on people to get vaccinated. However, many people used the tests to monitor their infection status regardless of whether they were vaccinated or not. People are less likely to get a test now they have to pay for it.