Germany logs 1.5 million weekly Covid infections as Omicron subtype spreads

German health offices reported 1.5 million Covid-19 cases within a week for the first time, a new report shows.

A positive Covid test lies on a mask.
A positive Covid test lies on a mask. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

Health experts say the Omicron subtype BA.2 is spreading quickly in Germany. 

According to the latest available data relating to two weeks ago, the share of BA.2 in a random sample was around 72 percent, up from around 64 percent previously.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said in its weekly report that the variant is gaining a large share of the infection incidence, while the role of the previously predominant Omicron type BA.1 is getting smaller.

BA.2 is considered a driver of the current infection incidence and explosion in infections, though relaxed restrictions and behavioural changes in the population have also played a role.

READ ALSO: Germany sees more than 300,000 Covid infections within 24 hours

The authors of the report stressed the importance of people continuing to behave cautiously – and underlined the benefits of vaccination despite Omicron.

“Vaccination has not lost its importance due to its high effectiveness against a severe course even in cases of disease caused by the Omicron variant,” they said.

The RKI puts the estimated effectiveness of the booster vaccination at preventing hospitalisation at 87 percent for people aged 60 and over, who are considered particularly at risk.

With basic immunisation (two shots), it would be 75 percent in this age group.

On Twitter, the institute added that complete vaccination – and especially boosters – provide very good protection against severe illness and death. The institute said that the severity of the disease is generally lower after vaccination.

The RKI called on at-risk groups and people over 70 to protect themselves against severe disease with a second booster vaccination, in accordance with the recommendation of the Standing Commission on Vaccination. According to the report, about 1.67 million people have made use of this option so far.

Although the incidence was particularly high among people aged 5 to 44 last week, the strongest increase was observed among senior citizens aged 75 to 79, the RKI said.

Outbreaks in nursing homes have continued to go up in recent weeks. “The increase in severe courses of the disease particularly affects the age group of those aged 80 and over,” said the RKI in its report.

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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.