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COVID-19 VACCINES

Where – and how – people can get the new Omicron vaccine in Germany

Three German states have started rolling out new Covid vaccines that are specially adapted to the Omicron variant. Here's who's eligible to get a jab and how to go about it.

Hannover vaccine centre Omicron vaccine
A banner on a Hannover vaccine centre advertises the new Omicron vaccine. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

What are the Omicron vaccines and how are they different?

In the latest phase of the Covid pandemic, the Omicron variant has been by far the most dominant variant worldwide. Though Omicron is believed to cause milder courses of illness than preceding variants like Delta, it’s known for being highly transmissible and adept at evading the body’s immune responses. 

In September, three Omicron vaccines received EU-wide approval: two vaccines from BioNTech and Moderna adapted to the BA.1 sub-variant, and another Omicron booster from BioNTech to protect against the dominant BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants.

Like their previous Covid vaccines, the latest from BioNTech and Moderna are mRNA vaccines, a recently developed vaccine type that teaches our bodies to produce an immune response when exposed a molecule known as a messenger RNA. The difference is that these vaccines are what’s known as “bivalent”, meaning they contain both a component of the original strain of Covid alongside a component of the BA.1, BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subtypes respectively.

READ ALSO: EU approves new dual-strain Covid vaccines in time for autumn booster campaigns

That means they’re designed to both offer protection against Covid caused by previous variants as well as the new Omicron subtypes. 

As with other Covid vaccines, the Omicron vaccines are only believed to offer greater protection from infection for a short time after getting the jab. However, studies suggest that they continue to offer good protection against severe courses of illness. 

Where are the jabs being rolled out in Germany?

So far, only a handful of northern German states are offering the new BA.4 and BA.5 vaccine, though GPs have been able to order doses of Moderna’s BA.1 vaccine for a few weeks now.

One of the first states offering the latest Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is Berlin, where both doctors’ practices and the Ring Center Vaccination Centre in Friedrichshain have been providing Omicron vaccinations since Tuesday.

A list of clinics with doses of the specially adapted vaccines can be found here (in German). Alternatively, people can head to the vaccination clinic at the Ring Center between 9am and 7:30pm daily, with or without an appointment. 

In Lower Saxony, GPs are currently able to obtain up to 240 doses of the new BA.4/BA.5 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech. Vaccination centres such as the Impfzentrum am Landtag in Hannover are also offering the new Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. 

Around 145 mobile vaccination teams are also expected to receive doses of the new vaccine over the course of the week, meaning people who aren’t able to get a jab at their doctors’ surgery or vaccination centre yet can look out for pop-up clinics in places like shopping malls and on the high street.

In Bremen, the latest BA.4/BA.5 adapted vaccine from Pfizer has been used as the standard booster shot in a number of vaccination centres since Thursday. People who are interested in the Omicron vaccine can get it at the vaccination centre Am Brill, in the vaccination centres in Bremen-Nord, Bremen-Ost and at the centre in Bremerhaven. Mobile vaccination teams have also received doses of the new vaccine.

Due to the current high level of demand, people are being advised to book an appointment ahead of time at www.impfzentrum.bremen.de. 

Doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Omicron vaccine are expected to be rolled out in other German states in the coming weeks. 

Are the new vaccines recommended for everyone?

On September 20th, Germany’s Standing Vaccines Commission (STIKO) updated its guidance to recommend that the latest Omicron vaccines are used when doctors are giving out booster jabs. 

That means that anyone who hasn’t had a third dose of Covid vaccine should soon be able to get an Omicron booster as standard. 

However, STIKO currently only recommends second boosters (or fourth jabs) for certain groups who are at risk of severe courses of Covid: people over the age of 60, nursing home residents, staff at care homes and hospitals and people with existing immune system deficiencies. 

For this group, the fourth dose should only be administered more than six months after the third dose, according to STIKO. This can be reduced to four months in exception circumstances.

People who don’t fall into any of these categories may still be able to get a dose of one of the newest Omicron vaccines after a consultation with their doctor. 

READ ALSO: Can anyone in Germany get a second Covid booster jab?

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COVID-19 RULES

Which German states are planning to bring back masks indoors?

With Covid infections once again on the rise, German states like Berlin are considering bringing in stricter Covid rules. So what changes to current measures could we see - and when?

Which German states are planning to bring back masks indoors?

What’s going on?

Since the start of October, federal states in Germany have had the power to implement new mask-wearing and testing rules in their regions. 

While a few basic measures – including mask-wearing in clinics and on long-distance trains – still apply nationwide, state health ministries can decide for themselves whether to introduce stricter measures in response to rising infections and hospitalisations. 

That includes bringing back mandatory masks in supermarkets and other indoor spaces, or reintroducing testing in schools and nurseries. 

Though Covid infections has been shooting up in recent weeks, most states have seemed content to keep bare-bones measures in place. That could be about to change.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In Berlin, health senator Ulrike Gote (Greens) has put forward plans for the reintroduction of masks in retail outlets, museums and other public buildings. According to mayor Franziska Giffey (SPD), the proposals haven’t yet been discussed in the Senate – but a push from Gote could see the capital becoming the first of Germany’s sixteen states to tighten up their Covid rules for winter.

In neighbouring Brandenburg, the health ministry also appears to be leaning towards a sharpening of measures. Over the weekend, health minister Ursula Nonnemacher (Greens) told various media outlets that she wanted to extend mandatory masks to shops and municipal buildings such as the Bürgeramt.

Though there are no plans to reintroduce masks in places like museums, cinemas and theatres, Nonnemacher said she was concerned that hospitals could become overburdened with Covid patients in the colder months. 

Further afield, the city-state of Bremen also looks set to discuss whether to bring back mandatory masks in shops and other businesses in the near future. A decision is expected to be made by the Senate on Tuesday. 

Could other states follow suit?

At present, states are keeping a close eye on the latest Covid stats – though in most cases it’s unclear which criteria are being used to determine when a tightening of rules would be appropriate. 

One state bucking that trend is Lower Saxony. The northern state uses a combination of metrics to decide which level of its Covid measures should apply. If the weekly incidence of hospitalisations reaches more than 15 per 100,000 people and at least 10 percent of intensive care beds are occupied by Covid patients, the state will apply its ‘Stage One’ rules. These include masks in all public indoor spaces, with exceptions for people with a negative test. 

As of Monday, the hospitalisation incidence was at 15.1, while Covid patients were occupying five percent of intensive care beds. That means a spike in intensive care patients could prompt the ministry to tighten up rules once again. 

In Hesse, a sharp rise in Covid patients in both ordinary and intensive care wards along with high levels of sickness among hospital staff has prompted the ministry to start consultations on extending the mask rules. 

“The infection situation and the situation of health care in Hesse are being monitored very carefully,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Affairs told The Local. “In close coordination with the hospitals and the medical profession, the state government is preparing to take measures, if necessary, to avoid overloading the hospitals. This close coordination is underway.”

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Where Covid infections are rising rapidly in Germany

The southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg could also act to extend its mask rules in the coming days or weeks. “It may be that we say relatively quickly that wearing masks indoors will become mandatory,” state health minister Manfred Lucha (Greens) told SWR on Monday. 

In neighbouring Rhineland Palatinate, the health ministry is “monitoring the situation and the incidence of infection very closely”, health minister Clemens Hoch (SPD) said in a statement. “At the moment, we are still relying on people’s personal responsibility. However, it is still strongly recommended to wear masks as consistently as possible in situations where many people come together. The state is also in close contact with the hospitals.”

Supermarket Covid measures Germany

A supermarket sign advises customers to wear a Covid mask while shopping. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

Hoch said the state had chosen not to use fixed thresholds like the incidence to determine whether more measures should be rolled out, since other factors like staffing levels needed to be taken into account. Most of the Covid patients in hospital are currently being treated not “for” but “with” the virus, he added. 

In North Rhine-Westphalia, Covid infections are rising rapidly, and the health ministry expects the spike in cases to have an impact on the healthcare system and intensive care wards. However, since the rate of sick leave in hospitals is roughly in line with previous years, the ministry believes the situation is “tense but manageable”. 

“Against this background, the ministry does not see any need for additional protective measures at the moment,” a spokesperson for the ministry explained. 

READ ALSO: What to know about getting a fourth Covid vaccination in Germany

Saxony’s health ministry also said it had no plans to tighten its mask-wearing rules. “Our criterion for stricter measures has always been the overloading of hospitals by Covid patients,” a spokesperson explained. However, people with pre-existing medical conditions and over-60s are still advised to wear a mask indoors. 

According to official advice in Bavaria, people should wear a mask wherever a large number of people are present – but aside from compulsory masks in clinics and on public transport, this is largely left up to the individual to decide. 

“The Bavarian State Office for Health and Food Safety (LGL) is closely observing the development of Covid and relies on multi-layered monitoring,” a spokesperson for the health ministry told The Local. “Together, we are assessing the current situation on this basis. Should the monitoring reveal the need for further measures, we will act immediately. At present, we see no reason to do so – but we are prepared to take rapid steps.” 

What’s the Health Minister saying? 

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) has been calling on states to bring in tighter measures since the start of October. 

In a press conference held in Berlin on Friday, Lauterbach reiterated his appeal to the health ministries to stem the current tide of infections and hospitalisations.

“We have no reason to believe that the wave we are facing is self-limiting,” he told reporters. “The direction we are heading is not a good one.”

With the autumn wave gaining momentum, Lauterbach isn’t the only voice in the federal government urging states to take action. 

READ ALSO: German health minister urges states to bring back mask-wearing indoors

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD)

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) takes off his mask ahead of a press statement on the Covid infection protection measures in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

Writing on Twitter, Greens health expert Maria Klein-Schmeink reminded states that they had demanded powers to introduce tougher measures in the fight against the pandemic. 

“They got it, but now they have to use it,” she said. “Omicron has a high potential for infection and is now threatening to push our critical infrastructure, especially the healthcare system, over the limit.”

The Marburger Bund doctors’ association have also called for masks on both public transport and in other public indoor spaces in recent days. 

But there has also been pushback. Senior politicians such as Bavarian state premier Markus Söder (CSU) and lobbyists from the retail sector have both come out against an extension of the mask-wearing rules to shops, restaurants and other indoor spaces.

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