Germany’s summer Covid wave set to get worse, say experts

Covid infections are still on the up in Germany and experts are predicting another rise in numbers when holidaymakers return from abroad.

Guests enjoy the sun at a Hamburg Strandbad
Guests enjoy the sun at a Hamburg Strandbad. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Weber

In its weekly Covid report, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) revealed that the number of people infected with Covid had risen in previous days after plateauing the previous week. 

“The increase mainly affected federal states in the centre and south of the country, and especially the age groups of 70 years and older,” the RKI explained. 

In contrast to previous years, the prevalence of the highly transmissible Omicron BA.5 subtype in Germany this year has meant that the incidence of infections has remained high even in the warmer summer months.

According to the RKI, BA.5 now accounts for 87 percent of positive Covid samples in Germany. 

Experts believe the situation could get worse in the coming weeks thanks to the return of holidaymakers and children in some federal states returning to school.

READ ALSO: Covid lockdowns in Germany shouldn’t be ruled out, says expert

“At the moment, we are observing a dampening of the summer wave in our model, due to the school holidays,” Kai Nagel, who has been modelling the pandemic along with a team of experts at Berlin’s Technical University, told DPA.

“After the summer holidays, our model assumes that the BA.5 wave will be boosted again by returning travellers and also by the start of school.”

This could lead to a longer phase where infections remain high, Nagel added.

Nagel’s assessment of the situation was shared by Essen-based virologist Ulf Dittmer. “The wave has not broken yet,” he warned on Friday.

Virologists are currently debating whether the high number of summer infections could put the country in a better position when autumn rolls around. 

According to Dittmer, the summer wave has definitely improved immunity in the general population – but not everyone is equally protected.

Patients with suppressed immune systems are much harder to protect from severe courses of the illness, he said. Since the BA.5 is so good at evading immunity, there could also be numerous repeat infections. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I get a second Covid booster jab in Germany?

Staff shortages 

The news comes as hospital wards struggle with understaffing due to high numbers of people needing to self-isolate or signing off sick. 

This is the main concern for people working in the health sector at present, Dittmer said. 

On a visit to Washington D.C. this week, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) warned that the situation in autumn could be “catastrophic” if more wasn’t done to contain the virus.

“If we went into autumn as we are now, i.e. without further protective measures, without masks, without anything, then that would mean that the number of cases would rise sharply, but also that the intensive care units would be overloaded,” Lauterbach told DPA on Thursday. 

Health minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) holds a press conference in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

He described the situation in clinics as a “candle burning at both ends”, with understaffing burning at one end and high patient numbers at the other.

Last week, there were a total of 3,300 new hospital admissions with a severe respiratory infection after contracting Covid-19, while the number of patients in intensive care wards rose slightly to 1,330.

The number of people visiting their GP with acute respiratory infections – including Covid infections – hit the 1.2 million mark in the same week.

As of Friday, the weekly incidence of Covid infections stood at 729 per 100,000 people, up from 719 the previous week. 

READ ALSO: Masks and tests: The Covid rules that tourists in Germany should know

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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.