“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
‘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.