Hold Christmas parties in Germany online to stave off Omicron, says RKI

Germany is seeing a decreasing number of Covid cases - but the proportion of infections with the Omicron variant is going up, leading to experts urging people to cut down on contacts.

A bar in Berlin.
A bar in Berlin earlier in December. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

The number of new Covid infections is not decreasing fast enough in view of the high burden on intensive care units, and the upcoming Omicron wave, said the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in its latest weekly report.

Confirmed new Covid infections in Germany fell by 13 percent between December 6th and 12th compared to the previous week, experts said.

The proportion of positive samples has also not increased further and is now at 19.8 percent (previous week: 20.6 percent). 

“Despite this development, very high case numbers are still recorded overall and the burden on intensive care units due to the large number of seriously ill Covid-19 patients remains high,” said the RKI.

There are believed to be hundreds of Covid cases involving the Omicron strain in circulation in Germany.

By December 14th, 112 cases of the “variant of concern” had been detected by genome sequencing. A further 213 cases were suspected on the basis of a PCR test. The RKI said the first outbreaks have also been found in community settings. 

At the moment most infections in Germany are still attributed to the Delta variant.

But it is only “a matter of time before Omicron takes over”, said RKI head Lothar Wieler at a joint press conference with Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach on Thursday. 

READ ALSO: Celebrate Christmas with ‘closet circle’, says head of German health agency

“The current development continues to be very worrying, the number of severe illnesses and deaths will continue to increase,” said the RKI in its report.

Virtual Christmas parties

Experts from the institute said more “contact restricting measures” and “a rapid further increase in vaccination rates is urgently required in order to slow down the expected spread of the Omicron variant”.

The RKI urged people in Germany to help limit the spread by cutting down on contact, avoiding travel, isolating and contacting a doctor for a Covid test if they have symptoms (such as a cold or cough), airing out indoor rooms regularly and wearing masks. 

“In principle, all unnecessary contacts should be reduced and travel avoided,” said the RKI, adding that the institute “strongly advises to cancel, avoid or hold larger indoor events, such as Christmas parties, virtually”.

The RKI also recommended checking the Corona Warning app regularly. People should be fully vaccinated and tested when coming into contact with at-risk people, the RKI advised. 

READ ALSO: Should I travel within Germany or abroad this festive season?

When can Germany expect the Omicron wave to hit?

If the rate of spread of Omicron in Germany matches that in other countries, an increase in the number of cases is possible by the end of the year, epidemiologist Berit Lange of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research told broadcaster ARD.

“If it also progresses with a spread rate of two to four days in our country then it is of course possible that we will already have daily case numbers of several thousand to several tens of thousands due to Omicron by the end of the year, beginning of January,” he said.

The chart below by Our World in Data shows the development of Covid cases per million people in Germany compared to Denmark and the UK, which are both seeing a rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

The spread of Omicron in Germany depends on people’s behaviour and any extra measures ordered by governments. 

READ ALSO: Is Germany heading for a Christmas partial lockdown? 

According to current research, vaccinated people – especially those without their booster – are also more likely to pick up and spread Omicron compared to previous variants like Delta, Lange said.

“This means that contact restrictions may also become necessary for vaccinated people,” he said.

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Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

German health ministers say that tougher Covid restrictions should come back into force if a serious wave emerges in autumn.

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Following a video meeting on Monday, the health ministers of Germany’s 16 states said tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

“The corona pandemic is not over yet – we must not be deceived by the current declining incidences,” said Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister Petra Grimm-Benne, of the Social Democrats, who currently chairs the Conference of Health Ministers (GMK).

According to the GMK, new virus variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter. Over the weekend, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also warned that the more dangerous Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the corona pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Grimm-Benne said.

Preparations should also include an amendment of the Infection Protection Act, ministers urged. They want to see the states given powers to react to the infection situation in autumn and winter. They called on the government to initiate the legislative process in a timely manner, and get the states actively involved.

The current Infection Protection Act expires on September 23rd this year. Germany has loosened much of its Covid restrictions in the last months, however, face masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as on planes. 

READ ALSO: Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

The health ministers said that from autumn onwards, it should be possible for states to make masks compulsory indoors if the regional infection situation calls for it. Previously, wearing a Covid mask was obligatory in Germany when shopping and in restaurants and bars when not sitting at a table. 

Furthermore, the so-called 3G rule for accessing some venues and facilities – where people have to present proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test – should be implemented again if needed, as well as other infection protection rules, the ministers said. 

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek, of the CSU, welcomed the ministers’ unanimous call for a revision of the Infection Protection Act. “The states must be able to take all necessary infection protection measures quickly, effectively, and with legal certainty,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) warned that no one should “lull themselves into a false sense of security”.

“We must now prepare for the colder season and use the time to be able to answer important questions about the immunity of the population or the mechanisms of infection chains,” he said.

On Tuesday, Germany reported 86,253 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 215 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence stood at 437.6 infections per 100,000 people. However, experts believe there could be twice as many infections because lots of cases go unreported. 

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now