German hospitals struggle with staff shortages due to Covid

Covid infections are soaring in Germany, and hospitals say they are seeing staff shortages due to people having to call in sick or quarantine.

A sign on a glass door at the RKH Klinikum Ludwigsburg shows the Covid unit.
A sign on a glass door at the RKH Klinikum Ludwigsburg indicates the Covid unit. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Hundreds of hospitals in Germany are struggling with significant staff shortages as the country battles the Omicron wave of Covid-19, putting pressure on intensive care units. 

“A high number of staff testing positive is very burdensome for many hospitals,” president of the intensive care association DIVI, Gernot Marx, told the Augsburger Allgemeine on Tuesday.

“Thus, 518 out of 1,320 intensive care units are currently again stating that they are working in a restricted operation.”

Marx added that the state of North Rhine-Westphalia had seen a spike of Covid infections following recent carnival celebrations. He said that “a carnival effect was very clearly felt” in some hospitals.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The Covid measures across German states

Staff absences due to quarantine and isolation

Similar concerns have been voiced by the chairman of the German Hospital Federation (DKG), Gerald Gaß.

“We have a nationwide problem with staff absences due to quarantine and isolation,” Gaß told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.

A current survey shows “that 75 percent of hospitals are no longer able to offer their normal range of services, and the crucial factor for this is the staff shortages,” he said. 

And the high number of Covid infections means that there will be no respite in the coming weeks either, Gaß said. He added, however, that one positive is that the occupancy rate in ICUs has not been increasing.

Incidence keeps climbing

Germany is continuing to see a spike in Covid infections, which experts believe is partly fuelled by the more transmissible Omicron subtype BA.2.

On Tuesday the incidence reached 1,733.4 Covid infections per 100,000 people, increasing from 1,714.2 on Monday and 1,584.4 a week ago.

READ ALSO: How be worried should we be about Germany’s rising Covid infections?

Health offices in Germany reported 222,080 new Covid infections and 264 Covid-related deaths within the latest 24-hour period.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said in its daily report on Monday that the 7-day incidence of hospitalised Covid cases stands at 7.36 per 100,000 population.

There are currently around 2,347 Covid patients in ICUs across Germany, with 887 receiving ventilation treatment. During previous Covid peaks there were more than 5,000 patients in intensive care units. 

Member comments

  1. So are we surprised this happens after we start sacking the unvaccinated healthcare workers? Or do we pretend that these things are most certainly not linked?
    Or is this story breaking as the relaxing of the rules is getting close so we can continue them forever. How much of this is shortage has been caused by government policies rather than medical staff actually catching covid. because this is the first time in 2 years this has happened, right?

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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.