Skyrocketing infection numbers in Germany mean that the country must reckon with an increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths, Robert Koch Institute President Lothar Wieler told journalists on Friday.
Wieler said that, in just a few days, the more transmissible omicron variant would have completely displaced the previous dominant strain, delta.
The institute chief said — with a sharp rise in infections in the past week — Germany was entering a new phase of the pandemic. Even if infections with omicron were milder, as early evidence has suggested, Wieler said the sheer number of new infections meant the country had to expect more severe illness and deaths.
So far, the number of deaths has not risen, said Wieler. "But that will change," he added.
Tobias Kurth, an epidemiologist at the Charite hospital in Berlin, told DW that he expects this surging infection trend to continue and that the health care system will begin to feel the strain.
"Omicron has mild symptoms, but this is on average, which does not mean that people are not getting severely sick," Kurth said.
"As many people are still not vaccinated, there is still a high chance that some of them will, unfortunately, end up in the hospital. For the health care system, this is still a very alarming situation," he added.
Challenge to keep curve flat
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said Friday that he expected an even higher spike in infection rates
The health minister said the strategy must be to slow the pandemic down through restrictions while at the same administering as many vaccines as possible.
This, he said, could flatten the curve of people hospitalized over time — and alleviate pressure on health care services.
The goal, he said, was "to make the otherwise expected steep wall of infection numbers into a hill, if possible, or to make sure the wall is not so high."
Lauterbach said restrictions imposed in December had the desired effect of slowing down the virus compared with other countries.
Agreed upon restrictions — such as a requirement for even vaccinated people to show a negative antigen test when eating out at restaurants — would further help, he said. He ruled out the easing current restrictions and added that more measures could be needed if infections rise dramatically or the health care system becomes overwhelmed.
Epidemiologist Kurth said that while mask-wearing, distancing and vaccinations are key, the virus "pretty much cannot be stopped right now" because it is so infectious.
Relaxed rules on quarantine
The most recent set of rules passed by Germany's parliament call for reducing the need to quarantine for long periods.
Individuals who have recently had booster shots — or been double-vaccinated or recovered in the past 3 months — no longer have to go into quarantine if they have had contact with an infected person.
For anyone not meeting those requirements, the quarantine period will be shortened to seven days, provided a negative PCR or antigen test is confirmed. This would be the case not only for contacts of infected people but also individuals who actually had the disease.
The shorter periods of isolation are intended in part to prevent staffing breakdowns in areas such as social work and health care. The new rules were passed by Germany's upper chamber, the Bundesrat, on Friday, after being approved by Bundestag lawmakers the previous evening.
However, some experts have warned that the relaxation of quarantine rules will lead to more infections, placing more pressure on healthcare facilities.
Just over 70% of German adults have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus (with 45% having received a booster shot). The country is also currently debating whether vaccination should be mandatory.
wmr,rc/sms (dpa, Reuters, AFP)