“More than one percent of the German population is acutely infected, the military is transferring patients between hospitals, key operations are being postponed, and the ICUs (intensive care units) continue to fill up,” he told reporters gathered at the Friday press conference.
He said he welcomed the new anti-Covid measures that had been decided on by the federal and state governments on Thursday afternoon.
“But it has come too late – for some too late,” he said.
The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) estimates that there are around 926,000 active Covid cases in Germany at the moment – representing more than one percent of the population – but have warned that the real figure could be much higher.
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Due to the proportion of positive PCR tests coming back from the labs, “we’re assuming this is underestimated by a factor of two or three,” said RKI president Lothar Wieler.
That means that up to 2.8 million people, or around three percent of the population, could currently be suffering from a Covid infection – either with or without symptoms.
With the situation on intensive care wards getting worse by the day, the pandemic situation isn’t only affecting those with Covid, but also people with chronic conditions like cancer that require a complex and timely series of treatments, Wieler said.
At present, five percent fewer tumour operations are taking place – affecting the chances of survival for cancer patients.
Wieler said the situation could be made worse by the presence of the new Omicron variant, which may be more transmissible and break through vaccine protection more easily – although research into it is still ongoing.
“We have no time to lose, not a single day,” he added.
‘Far too high’
Dampening hopes that the fourth wave could be breaking in light of stagnating incidences, Wieler warned that the number of infections was “still far too high”.
“It’s far too soon to talk of a trend reversal and avoid stricter measures – quite the opposite,” he said. Pointing to the regions with more than 1,000 new weekly infections per 100,000 people, he argued that health officials were simply no longer able to keep track of all the infections, leading to an artificial dip in case numbers.
“In some states we may be seeing the early effects of new Covid measures, in others the capacity has been exhausted,” Wieler said.
President of the Robert Koch Insitute, Lother Wieler, issues a stark warning at a press conference with Health Minister Jens Spahn. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka
On Thursday, incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz, acting Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of the 16 states met to decide on a suite of new measures to battle the fourth wave, including barring the unvaccinated from non-essential shops and other areas of public life and allowing regional lockdowns when case numbers were high.
But Spahn said it could take a few weeks for the measures to dampen the rate of infections, meaning hospitals are likely to come under further pressure and reach a “devasting peak” around Christmas.
“Even when the decisions taken have the full desired effect, a proportion of the infected will end up in the ICUs next week or the week after,” he said. “Germany will see considerably more than 5,000 patients in the ICU – even with the measures”
He urged people: “Take the situation seriously, reduce contact as much as possible, help us to avoid further sorrow. Those affected and those who look after them will thank you for it.”
‘Pandemic of the unvaccinated’
Health experts have criticised the fact that many of the measures decided on by the state and federal leaders are targeted solely at the unvaccinated.
The government has agreed to introduce tough contact restrictions for the unvaccinated and a system known as ‘2G’, where only recovered and vaccinated people can enter shops, restaurants and cultural venues, nationwide.
But experts claim the vaccinated are also strong drivers of the pandemic.
Defending the measures, Spahn said the focus on people who hadn’t been jabbed was justifiable.
“It’s right to say that it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” he told reporters. “The vaccinated can be infected and drive infections – but it’s true, and it remains true, that the incidence of the unvaccinated is much higher among all age groups than the vaccinated.”
Jens Spahn defends the focus on the unvaccinated at a press conference on Friday, December 3rd. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld
The vaccination campaign has been picking up pace in Germany over the past few weeks, with almost a million jabs being issued per day on Wednesday and Thursday.
“In a short time, we’ve managed to bring the vaccination campaign back to life,” Spahn said.
However, the vast majority of these jabs are booster jabs given out to people who were already vaccinated – meaning that the proportion of the population who haven’t had a single jab has remained relatively stable.
“If you choose not to get vaccinated, you don’t just harm yourself, you harm everyone else as well,” he said. “The last few weeks have shown this painfully.”
Germany’s new government, which will take over on December 8th, is hoping to roll out 30 million first, second and booster jabs by Christmas.
Spahn said there would be more than enough vaccine to meet this target in the following days and weeks. Ten million doses had already been put into arms, 10 million more doses had been delivered and 10 million more would come in December, he said.
“When we use all of these doses, we’ll be giving ourselves the best possible Christmas present,” he added.