Germany has Omicron wave ‘well under control’, says Health Minister

Health officials believe Germany is faring well in the face of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 - but said more older people needed to get vaccinated ahead of autumn.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach talks at a press conference alongside RKI head Lothar Wieler.
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach talks at a press conference alongside RKI head Lothar Wieler. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

“I believe we currently have the Omicron wave well under control,” said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) at a press conference on Friday.

Lauterbach said all efforts were being directed at keeping the number of deaths as low as possible. 

The goal is to get through the wave “with as few severe cases and deaths as possible”, he said. 

“We have a special problem in Germany: a very old population, the second oldest in Europe after Italy, and on top of that we have a very high number of unvaccinated people in this age group,” said Lauterbach.

Among the over-60s, four times as many people as in Britain ,and three times as many as in Italy are not protected by vaccines, he said.

READ ALSO: How worried should we be about Germany’s rocketing Covid cases

However, Lauterbach said Germany was faring well at the moment in the Covid wave sweeping the country. 

The 7-day incidence of infections is currently 1,000 on average in Germany, and in some cases as high as 2,000 among younger people.

“But among the vulnerable group we are targeting, it is between 200 and 300. And that is our success,” said Lauterbach. 

The minister expects the daily number of infections to double to 400,000 by mid-February when Omicron will peak.

Lauterbach raised concerns about the slow uptake on booster jabs. 

Since Omicron is considered milder, many people mistakenly believe that boosters are not needed, he said, adding that after a booster the risk of death decreases by 99 per cent compared to unvaccinated people.

“Please get boosted, you are doing yourself the biggest favour you can do,” he said.

READ ALSO: Baden-Württemberg relaxes Covid restrictions despite high incidence

Pushing for general vaccine mandate

Ahead of next autumn, Lauterbach said the aim was to “avert a relapse by making vaccination compulsory across the board”.

This is necessary, he said, because the constant appeals are not closing the 12 percent vaccination gap among the over-60s.

“We want to prevent another Omicron wave,” Lauterbach said. 

Lauterbach was joined at the press conference by the head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Lothar Wieler, and lung specialist Christian Karagiannidis of the German Association for Intensive and Emergency Medicine DIVI.

Wieler said that the number of cases had clearly risen sharply, “but nowhere near as sharply as could be possible under Omicron”.

However, the head of the RKI sees no reason to sound the all-clear as Omicron is still heading to its peak.

In the past seven days, 890,000 people have been infected – one percent of the population, said Wieler, adding that every third PCR test is positive. In this “new phase of the pandemic”, however, the number of cases is less of an issue because of the overall milder effects of the disease.

Yet there is an impact on hospitals. 

The 7-day incidence of Covid hospitalisations is 7.5 per 100,000 people – and rising. “Hospitals are already feeling the effects of this,” Wieler said.

Although Omicron is less likely to cause severe cases than Delta, “the sheer number of people infected” means that more admissions, including of older people, must be expected, he said.

Karagiannidis said there were currently just over 2,000 Covid patients in intensive care units, and said this was an “acceptable” level. For comparison, at the peak of Delta, there were around 5,000 patients in ICUs.

But Covid is still causing major disruption. In regular hospital wards, for example in North Rhine-Westphalia, Omicron is resulting in the “strongest increase in Covid patients since the beginning of the pandemic”, said Karagiannidis.

And future developments are unclear. “I’m more afraid of the coming winter than this one,” said Karagiannidis.

Member comments

  1. The minister seems hell bent on making the vaccine compulsory sometime for someone regardless. Who will compensate those adversely affected in that context since, at present, neither the pharma companies nor the Government appear to be liable for the consequences of ‘voluntary’ vaccinations ? If the German Parliament is foolish enough to go down the road of forced vaccinations , any legislation should make it clear who will bear liability and to what degree. If they can decide on the level of fine then they can also decide on the level of compensation for those poor souls where it all goes wrong.

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

As the weather warms up and tourism returns to Germany, this spring feels more normal than the last two years. So what is the pandemic situation in Germany - and how will it develop?

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

Covid cases falling – but lots of unreported infections

The number of Covid infections in Germany has been falling recently, according to official figures. On Tuesday, 107,568 Covid infections were logged within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 218 deaths. The 7-day incidence fell to 522.7 infections per 100,000 people. 

The Robert Koch Institute’s weekly report from May 5th stated: “The peak of the current wave has clearly been passed, many hospitalisation indicators and and deaths continue to decrease.”

But experts warned that “the infection pressure remains high with almost 600,000 Covid-19 cases transmitted to the RKI within the last week”.

It’s worth keeping in mind that many cases of Covid are going unreported. 

Johannes Nießen, chairman of the Federal Association of Public Health Service Physicians, told Tagesschau: “Many rapid tests are not confirmed by PCR testing. And since only PCR testing is included in the incidence-value calculation, we assume that the incidence value is at least twice as high as reported.”

READ ALSO: Germany reports no Covid deaths: What does it mean?

Changes to testing 

There was a time a few months ago when you had to queue for a long time to get a Covid test in Germany. But after the testing priorities changed (with a focus on PCR testing for key workers and vulnerable groups) and Covid restrictions were eased, test stations became quieter. 

And at the end of May, there will be another key change – government-funded Schnelltests will no longer be free to the public. So it won’t be possible to run to your nearest test station to check on your infection status if you think you have Covid. You’ll either need to buy a self-test or pay for a test at the centre. 

A pop-up Covid testing station in Münich.

A pop-up Covid testing station in Münich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

… but there are still Covid restrictions in place 

The so-called 3G and 2G rules – meaning people had to show some kind of proof to enter a venue like a restaurant – are no longer in place across Germany. 

Mask rules were also relaxed around the beginning of April.

But people in Germany still have to wear a Covid mask on public transport as well as long-distance trains and planes. They also remain in places where there are lots of vulnerable people such as hospitals, care homes and shelters for the homeless.

Some independent businesses and organisations can, however, ask visitors to wear a mask or take a test. 

Covid isolation rules are still in place but they have changed, too.

Now people who get a positive Covid test have to isolate for at least five days. They have the possibility to end it after five days if they haven’t had symptoms for 48 hours, or with a negative test (depending on the state rules). If symptoms or positive test results persist, isolation can last a maximum of 10 days. 

READ ALSO: Germany sets out new Covid isolation rules

Reinfections on the rise

It is unclear exactly how many people have been infected more than once. But figures from the Baden-Württemberg state health office show that cases of reinfection are increasing. In December 2021, the share of reinfections in the south-west state stood at 0.5 percent, and in April it rose to 3.6 percent. However, these are only the numbers that have been reported. 

Experts say the reason for the increase in reinfections since the beginning of the year is the Omicron variant. Virologist Martin Stürmer told Tagesschau: “In the beginning, we had the variants Alpha to Delta. The variants were so similar that the antibodies continued to provide good protection against infection or reinfection after vaccination or infection.

“With the Omicron variant, however, the virus has changed so much that this is no longer the case, so that reinfections occur more frequently despite vaccination, boosting or recovery status.”

However, Stürmer said vaccination does protect against severe illness. 

Within the Omicron variant, reinfection with the BA.2 sub-variant after an infection with BA.1 is rare, according to Stürmer. 

Although Omicron has been shown to cause less severe illness in the population in general, ‘long Covid’ – where symptoms persist for a longer period of time – is still a concern and something experts in Germany are watching closely. 

What about new variants?

Experts are urging people to be aware that new variants could emerge in the current climate. 

Stürmer said it’s important to keep in mind that “by allowing a lot of infection, we also allow the emergence of new variants, because basically the mutation rate is higher if we allow a lot of infection”.

“The virus changes,” he added, “and it may be that at some point there will be another variant that challenges us more.”

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said in April that he expected the pandemic situation to be more relaxed in the summer. But he warned of possible waves and future variants in autumn.