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Will Germany’s Covid infections ease up in time for Easter?

With high Covid infection numbers and restrictions being rolled back across Germany, the outlook for Easter looks uncertain. Here are the latest predictions from the experts.

Will Germany's Covid infections ease up in time for Easter?
Easter chocolates in the shape of a rooster and a rabbit with a mask on display in the confectionery shop of Julian Orlowski and Kazimierz Rak in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/PAP | Darek Delmanowicz

Over the last few months, the spring has often been cited as the time when the Covid situation in Germany would start to ease up again and, on the basis of this prognosis, measures to roll back nationwide restrictions came into force on March 20th – albeit amidst wide-spread criticism from state leaders and scientists. 

But on March 24th, Covid infections within 24-hours reached a record high of over 300,000 and 7-day incidences continue to be in the thousands for all federal states, suggesting that the outlook for spring is not as positive as previously hoped for. 

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

What are the prospects for Easter currently looking like?

On Monday, German news site Focus Online published an interview with Statistician Christian Hesse, who forecast a continuation of the upward trend in incidences in the coming weeks as the new Omicron variant BA.2 continues to spread amid lesser restrictions. 

The spread of the Omicron sub-variant “is accompanied by a changed and less cautious contact behaviour of parts of the population,” explains Hesse. “This could be due to the fact that fear of Covid has been somewhat eclipsed by fears of war.”

Even if the majority of the population continues to behave cautiously, “that is not enough, because the majority of new infections are caused by a minority of frequenters and super-spreaders,” he says.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister defends lifting of Covid measures

As a result, Hesse expects Covid infection numbers to continue to rise in the next few weeks leading up to Easter. This view is also shared by the head of Charité hospital in Berlin, Christian Drosten, who told die Zeit last week: “Currently we are also in a high incidence phase. And it will stay that way until Easter if we don’t intervene.”

Why are the infection numbers increasing so much?

According to Hesse, the Omicron variant BA.2 is largely responsible for high infection numbers: “According to a Japanese study, the Omicron subtype BA.2, which is now dominant in our country, is 1.4 times more infectious than the main Omicron line BA.1 under otherwise identical conditions.”

Added to this new, more contagious variant, is the fact that many restrictions have been rolled back since March 20th. However, most federal states still have a transitional period in place and are able to introduce tighter restrictions if the situation worsens considerably in their states. 

READ ALSO: Germany logs 1.5 million weekly Covid infections as Omicron subtype spreads

The exact parameters of the so-called ‘hotspot regulation’ are due to be thrashed out by the state health ministers in a conference on Monday, which may see the threshold for putting tougher restrictions in place lowered to halt rising infection numbers. 

Some good news

Despite the fact that the chances of catching Covid are higher than ever before, there are also some positive trends.

The hospitalisation rate is now 25 percent lower than during the winter wave in January 2021, and the ICU occupancy rate is less than half as much as during the peak of the Delta wave in mid-December 2021.

The number of patients requiring artificial ventilation has dropped to 38 percent, which, according to Hesse, is an indicator that the Omicron BA.2 variant causes much milder courses than Delta.

The risk of death with symptomatic Omicron infection has also decreased slightly, to 0.09 percent.

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Germany could still be hit by winter Covid wave, health minister warns

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) has criticised states that have loosened their Covid restrictions in recent weeks, as he warned that Germany could be on the brink of another wave.

Germany could still be hit by winter Covid wave, health minister warns

Speaking on Bayerischer Rundfunk Thursday, Lauterbach said he expected Covid infection numbers to rise again over the next weeks.

With Germany “likely at the start of a new winter wave”, Lauterbach said he could not understand states that had started to loosen their existing rules. 

“It feels kind of like a bidding war to see which state can relax their rules first,” he said. “That’s just a little bit populist.” 

Pointing to the some 1,000 people who continue to die each week after contracting Covid, Lauterbach said the existing rules were there to protect people who could not fully protect themselves.

Earlier this week, Bavaria became the second federal state to announce plans to scrap mandatory masks on local public transport, with state premier Markus Söder saying he was “convinced” that the rule could be phased out in either December or January. 

READ ALSO: Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein had already made a similar announcement earlier this month, with the mask-wearing rule due to end in the new year.

Speaking on Bayerischer Rundfunk, Lauterbach dismissed changes to the current restrictions as “reckless” and stressed that the Federal Health Ministry didn’t support plans to relax the rules.

Four states have also taken a further step towards liberalisation in recent weeks by ending the obligation to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid.

Under the current Infection Protection Act, only masks on long-distance transport, in clinics, and in care facilities are mandated on a federal level, while states are allowed to set their own mask-wearing rules on local public transport and in other public spaces.

Pandemic ‘nearly over’ 

While a handful of states look to relax their measures, top virologist Christian Drosten, who sits on the government’s panel of Covid experts, has signaled that the pandemic could soon be drawing to an end.

According to Drosten, the pattern of waves earlier this year show that increasingly small factors are enough to end a slew of infections. At the end of October, for example, a few weeks of summery weather broke the autumn wave entirely.

“The situation for the virus is becoming precarious,” Drosten told Die Zeit. “That is good. It is no longer the case that the virus could completely turn the game around with a few mutations.” 

The Berlin-based virologist said he didn’t expect a more dangerous or deadly mutation of the virus to emerge in the coming months. 

Christian Drosten and Karl Lauterbach

Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology and Charite Berlin, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach and RKI chief Lothar Wieler speak at a press conference in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Nevertheless, Drosten warned that the winter could be “difficult” if the highly infectious BQ.1.1 subtype became the dominant variant.

Epidemiologist Klaus Stöhr agreed with Drosten’s assessment, telling Bild that the signs were pointing towards a transition from the pandemic to the endemic phase, largely due to the levels of immunity among the population.

New variants and mutations were bound to appear, he said. 

“But that a variant appears that changes the clinical picture enormously or even worsens it and/or bypasses the acquired immune protection – we don’t see that happening!”

READ ALSO: German opposition leader calls for official end to pandemic next year

Uptick in infections

After falling steadily for a number of weeks, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 stood at 187 on Thursday, up from 178 the previous day.

This represents a slight drop from the previous week’s value of 199 and a significant decline compared to last month’s figure of 584.

However, experts say the incidence has become far less meaningful in recent weeks in light of the massive drop-off in testing – and particularly the negligible number of people who are taking PCR tests. 

According to the latest report from the Robert Koch Institute, 1,566 people were hospitalised with Covid within 24 hours, while 164 people died after contracting the virus.