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OPINION & ANALYSIS

How worried should we be about Germany’s rocketing Covid rates?

Germany is seeing a spike in Covid infections amid the Omicron wave. How worried should we be about these high numbers?

People walk past as sign for Covid testing in Hamburg.
People walk past as sign for Covid testing in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marcus Brandt

With over 200,000 daily Covid infections logged on Thursday in Germany, it’s clear the country is in the grip of the Omicron wave. 

On Friday, health authorities reported 190,148 Covid cases within the latest 24 hour period, and 170 deaths. The 7-day incidence reached a huge 1,073 Covid infections per 100,000 people – numbers we have never seen before. 

Spelling it out, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), said in its weekly report that “the fifth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic” has “gained momentum with the dominant circulation of the Omicron variant”.

So how dangerous are these increasing numbers? We took a look at the latest data, and what experts had to say. 

READ ALSO:

What’s the situation in hospitals?

Scientists and politicians are watching what’s going on in German clinics very closely. 

At the moment, there hasn’t been a spike in hospital admissions, but intensive care units are still struggling especially in some areas.

“The burden on intensive care units continues due to the large number of very severely ill people with Covid-19, but currently shows no increasing trend,” said the RKI. 

On January 27th, there were a reported 2,274 Covid patients in intensive care units in Germany, with 1,283 receiving ventilation treatment. 

But the development varies widely depending on the state.

In Bremen, for instance, the 7-day incidence of Covid hospital admissions is 13.82 per 100,000 residents. In Schleswig-Holstein it’s 6.32 and in Berlin its 3.98.

Bavaria’s hospitalisation incidence is 5.15.

The RKI believes “there is a risk of the health system becoming overloaded” due to the rapid increase in infections. 

According to experts at the institute, those most affected by severe illness when they get Covid continue to be “unvaccinated people and people with pre-existing diseases that weaken the immune system”.

“By far the highest incidence of hospitalisation is among people over 80 years of age,” they added. 

A '2G' sign for entry into the Greifswald Information site in the Town Hall.

A ‘2G’ sign for entry into the Greifswald Information site in the Town Hall. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Büttner

READ ALSO: Are Germany’s Covid rules backed up by science

Scientists believe that the Omicron variant is less likely to make people seriously ill than other strains of Covid – but that often depends on vaccination status, says the RKI.

“Studies indicate a lower proportion of hospitalisations compared to infections with the Delta variant in infected persons with complete vaccination or booster vaccination,” the institute said in the weekly report.

However, experts in Germany are worried about the effect of Omicron on the older population, particularly because around three million of the over 60s are unvaccinated. 

The RKI said data “is still insufficient for a conclusive assessment of the severity of the disease caused by the Omicron variant, especially in the elderly population”.

That’s because they believe the variant hasn’t fully hit older people yet in the same way as younger age groups. 

However, on Friday the German Health Minister struck a positive note during the weekly press conference. 

“I believe we currently have the Omicron wave well under control,” said Karl Lauterbach, although he flagged up that he is concerned about the older unvaccinated population. 

What do other experts say?

Bremen-based infectious disease epidemiologist Hajo Zeeb of the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology sees “light at the end of the tunnel” with the Omicron wave. 

Due to the high infection rate with Omicron, he says almost everyone will become infected by it.

“Because at the same time the courses of the disease are milder, especially in comprehensively vaccinated people, there is therefore a chance of reaching a state of broad basic immunisation of society”, Zeeb told the Weser-Kurier newspaper.

Christian Karagiannidis, head of the ECMO Centre at the Cologne-Merheim Lung Clinic and member of the German government’s expert council, said he is concerned about Omicron wreaking havoc – especially when it comes to staff absences and the burden on hospitals and in the outpatient sector.

But he is positive about spring.

“I am basically optimistic that in a few weeks we will barely talk about corona, and the chance of (Covid becoming an) endemic disease in 2022 will become tangible,” he told Tagesschau.

“The sooner everyone is vaccinated, the sooner we will be there.”

A sign for a vaccination and testing site in Munich

A sign for a vaccination and testing site in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

However, Karagiannidis does have concerns about next autumn if not enough people get vaccinated. 

So should we be worried about getting Omicron? 

Many people in Germany are seeing red alerts on their Corona warning app for the first time, or are hearing about lots of friends or family getting the virus. This is clearly a sign that the virus is very widespread.

There is a much higher chance of getting Covid now, but experts warn against trying to get it. 

The idea of people deliberately doing that in order to gain immunity through a supposedly mild course of disease is absurd, high profile virologist Sandra Ciesek said during a recent episode of the NDR podcast.

“I don’t deliberately infect myself with the hepatitis C virus just because it can be treated well,” said Ciesek.

Data from South Africa appears to show that unvaccinated people develop specific immune reactions to Omicron, but barely any antibodies against Delta.

“So we have to assume that these people could be re-infected with Delta if it circulates again,” Ciesek said.

And there are concerns that another variant or mix of variants will emerge.

Virologist Christian Drosten told Deutschlandfunk Radio that people who’ve had Omicron could get re-infected. There are various possibilities of how Omicron could develop from a rather mild variant into a more worrying one, he said, adding that he fears a combination of Omicron and Delta.

It could be that in the future a virus will emerge that on the one hand “carries the spike protein of the Omicron virus in order to continue to enjoy this immune advantage, but has the rest of the genome of the Delta virus”, said Drosten.

The strategy of “we all infect ourselves with the mild Omicron and afterwards everyone is immune” is therefore a fallacy, said Drosten, adding that vaccination is the best protection. 

READ ALSO: What to know about Germany’s planned test restrictions

What about Covid restrictions?

Germany has several strict rules in place, including ‘2G-plus’ which mean people who are vaccinated/recovered have to show proof of a negative test or booster to get into most public places like restaurants and bars. Unvaccinated people are completely barred unless they have a letter from the doctor saying that they can’t be vaccinated. 

Although Chancellor Olaf Scholz and state leaders said these restrictions needed to remain in place for now, some states are beginning to loosen up restrictions, including Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. 

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: How Germany will tackle latest phase of the Omicron wave

Kargiannidis said that the population in Germany is on average older than in South Africa, for example, which means the situations can’t be compared. 

In Britain, which also saw a huge spike in Omicron cases, many risk groups and older people have already been boosted, which means they have more protection against Omicron.

A face mask on the ground in Munich.

A face mask on the ground in Munich. Bavaria is easing some Covid rules. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

“The situation in Germany is not directly comparable with other countries,” Professor Dr. Ralf Bartenschlager, President of the German Society of Virology and Head of the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Heidelberg, told The Local earlier this week.

Bartenschlager said if Germany “lifts restrictions and let the virus take its course,” there could be a lot more deaths. 

But he is hopeful that things will change soon. 

“Based on the data, we are expecting the peak around mid-February, and hopefully in late spring/early summer the situation should relax again,” Dr. Bartenschlager said.

Another big question is how much society is willing to protect those who are more vulnerable.

For instance, under new quarantine rules, people who’ve had their booster shot and are a contact of someone with Covid-19 do not have to quarantine. 

But virologist Ciesek pointed out they could still spread the virus – especially with the more transmissible Omicron variant. She said that it is mainly those who have not been able to build up sufficient immune protection who will have to pay the price for that.

Karagiannidis warned that there is still a danger of Omicron causing problems even if it is generally mild for most people. “Operatively, we will see many patients again in the clinics, individually, but on average with lower disease severity. That’s good,” he said.

“However, the large numbers together with the increasing staff shortage can become a real problem. In terms of content, we lack some data to say how heavy the burden on the hospitals will get,” he said.

Member comments

  1. We could just not get rid of unvaccinated health care professionals. England are back peddling on that one too.

    Im no virologist but I’ve never had a vaccine that rums out after 3 months before I dont need a booster for yellow fever every few months. How about we just open up. If your scared stay home.if not crack on.

    1. It’s even crazier in France where it’s very much a war against the unvaccinated rather than a war against the virus. Just a few weeks ago the Health ministry issued a directive that Covid infected but vaccinated doctors and nurses could carry on working – whilst at the same time suspending doctors and nurses uninfected but unvaccinated. There is no consistency in the rules across Europe because , it seems to me, the stats are produced to support the narrative rather the narrative resulting from the stats. The end result will be normal life and civil liberties in countries like Britain and Denmark in just a few weeks time whilst forced vaccinations are being rolled out in Germany of all places.

      1. These politicians just aren’t scared of the population. Bojo in England only went the way he did because of the parties and he wanted to stay in power. All devolved nations had to follow after seeing the outcomes.

        I can’t believe how easily people are giving up their freedoms here. Its like they don’t want the responsibility. The policies being chased in the EU will lead to genocides.
        Then they’ll kill the farmers for owning the land.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).

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What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October. 

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