Germany is seeing a ‘massive pandemic of the unvaccinated’

Germany is experiencing a "massive" pandemic of the unvaccinated, Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Wednesday, calling for tougher action to tame a resurgence in Covid cases.

Health Minister Jens Spahn talks at the press conference in Berlin.
Health Minister Jens Spahn talks at the press conference in Berlin on Wednesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

“We are currently experiencing mainly a pandemic of the unvaccinated and it is massive,” Spahn, who is the caretaker Health Minister before the next government is formed, told reporters on Wednesday.

“In some regions in Germany intensive care beds are running out again,” he added.

Germany, Europe’s most populous country with some 83 million people, has been grappling with a fourth wave of Covid-19 cases in recent weeks that has seen the seven-day incidence rate hit highs not seen since May.

READ ALSO: Why are Covid infections in Germany rising?

On Wednesday, Germany’s local health authorities reported 20,398 new Covid cases and 194 Covid-related deaths within 24 hours.

The 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people dropped for the second day in a row in Germany to 147 from 154, but experts say the Monday public holiday in some states may have affected figures. 

The number of Covid patients in intensive care units (ICU) per 100,000 residents within seven days stood at 3.62, up from 3.29 on Tuesday. Germany’s previous highest hospitalisation incidence was around 15.5 at Christmas time last year.

More than 66 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, but Spahn expressed frustration that the uptake of jabs has slowed and that a significant proportion of 18 to 59-year-olds remain unvaccinated.

“The pandemic is not over,” Spahn said. “There would be significantly fewer Covid-19 patients in intensive care units if everyone got vaccinated.”

READ ALSO: German states tighten measures as Covid cases rise

He urged people to get vaccinated, keep wearing masks and to keep distancing and airing out indoor spaces.

Tougher Covid entry rules

Spahn also called for tougher checks at establishments – such as restaurants and bars – or events where only those who can show they have been vaccinated, have recovered from Covid or have recently tested negative (so-called 3G rules), are allowed to enter.

“My vaccination certificate was checked more often in one day in Rome than in four weeks in Germany,” said Spahn, highlighting that the health pass system in Germany is not enforced consistently. 

In some hard-hit regions, Spahn said, access should be limited to those who are fully vaccinated or can show proof of recovery – a system knowns as 2G in Germany.

“It’s nothing to do with vaccine bullying,” he said, “but with avoiding an overloading of the health care system”.

Spahn also mentioned obligatory testing for nursing homes, including tests for vaccinated and recovered people. Some federal states already have this rule, but not all, he said.

READ ALSO: German business calls for introduction of Covid health pass in offices

Booster jabs ‘should be possible for all’

Spahn’s final recommendation was for a bigger push on booster jabs. 

He said the government first started offering top-up Covid jabs in August to residents and and staff in nursing homes. 

“In these three months, there have only been two million third vaccinations (booster jabs),” he said, looking visibly frustrated. “That is too little. The pace of booster jabs is not enough, has (not) been for weeks.”

People queuing for a jab in Berlin.
People queuing for a jab in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

Spahn said the example of Israel showed how much of a difference booster jabs can make to the infection dynamics. 

Spahn reiterated his call from last week that anyone who wants a top-up Covid-19 vaccination should be given the opportunity to do so six months after their last jab – regardless if they belong to a risk group or not.

The Standing Commission on Vaccination (STIKO), however, currently recommends a top-up shot only for the over 70s, people who are in need of care, people with pre-existing conditions, and those who work in the healthcare system or with vulnerable people.

People who’ve had AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson are also urged to get a booster shot – and those who’ve had J&J can get an mRNA booster vaccine four weeks after their shot. 

But Spahn insists that everyone can get one. “After all, the approval is there and we have enough vaccine,” he said. 

Spahn said regions should consider contacting older people directly, as is the case in North Rhine-Westphalia and Berlin, to remind people to get their boosters. 

Another problem is that many people who want to get a top-up shot cannot find a doctor who will vaccinate them – this is reported to Spahn “every day”, the Health Minister revealed.

“If a 63-year-old wants the booster vaccination and the doctor says ‘no’ – that is not good,” he said. 

READ ALSO: Who can get a Covid-19 booster shot in Germany?

‘Vaccinated people fall ill much less often than the unvaccinated’

Lothar Wieler, head of the RKI, said at the press conference that vaccinated people are far more protected than those who don’t get jabbed.

“Vaccinated people fall ill much less often than unvaccinated people, and they also have to go to hospital less often”, a look at incidences and hospitalisation figures clearly shows, said Wieler. 

At the same time, however, Wieler stressed that vaccinated people – and those who’ve recovered from Covid – should not lull themselves into a false sense of security.

“Freedom is much more than just the individual choice to protect oneself – it is also the choice to achieve the common good. Solidarity remains the order of the day,” Wieler continued.

Leif-Erik Sander, head of the research group for infectious immunology and vaccine research at the Charité hospital in Berlin, emphasised that the probability of contracting the virus and passing it on is lower in vaccinated people.

However, it is also true that “in our own studies, we were able to show that about 40 percent of people over 70 years of age no longer have neutralising antibodies six months after their vaccination”, which increases the risk of breakthrough infections.

Therefore, the booster vaccination is all the more important because it increases protection again, “even significantly above the level after the second vaccination”, he said.

Sander expects that in the medium term, a top-up jab will be officially recommended to everyone in Germany. 

READ ALSO: German vaccines panel considers recommending booster jabs for all

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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.