Germany has set a stringent grim record on the health front in recent days. On November 10, the country recorded 39,676 new cases of Covid-19 in 24 hours, its highest figure during the pandemic. This despite a vaccination rate of almost 67 percent of the adult population.
Meanwhile, the seven-day average continues to reach new heights. After surpassing the previous record of 200 new cases per 100,000 on November 8, this closely monitored index has since risen to 232.1.
Risks for unvaccinated and early vaccinated
The situation is also deteriorating in hospitals. While the number of patients admitted with severe forms of Covid-19 is not as high as a year ago, thanks to the protective effect of vaccines, there is a clear increase, said Ralf Reintjes, an epidemiologist at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg.
Intensive care units are also “overcrowded than a year ago when there were no vaccines,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung reported. This is partly due to the high number of resignations of nursing staff, which has been overloaded since the onset of the health crisis. In addition, more patients with other diseases require care. A year ago, the blockade restricted the circulation of other seasonal viruses such as the flu.
All of these factors have pushed German virologist Christian Drosten – as popular in Germany as Dr. Anthony Fauci in the United States – give the alarm. On Tuesday, he considered it possible that another 100,000 people would die if nothing was done to stop the epidemic from spiraling out of control. “And this is a conservative assessment,” he added to German radio station NDR.
“It is true that with two-thirds of the adult population vaccinated, the health situation may seem surprising. “But in reality there is nothing surprising,” said Reintjes.
Germany thinks of other measures after new COVID-19 outbreaks
A cocktail with particularly explosive elements explains why the fourth wave of Covid-19 in Germany seems to be, in many ways, the worst. Most prominent is “a third of adults who have not yet been vaccinated, representing millions of Germans, some of whom have comorbidities that make them more likely to develop severe forms of the disease,” said Till Koch. an infectious disease specialist at Hamburg University Hospital.
In addition to the unvaccinated, there are those who were part of the first wave of vaccinations from late 2020 to early 2021. “For them, the effects of the second dose – given more than six months ago – have “they are starting to go extinct and are less protected against the virus,” Reintjes said. These early vaccinated are often older people who are among the most vulnerable populations.
Moreover, the virus is no longer the same. The German health situation “confirms that the Delta variant is much more contagious than the original one a year ago, even in vaccinated people”, continued Reintjes.
The effect of general elections in Germany
Finally, “we have the impression that we are back to normal life with people behaving like before the pandemic,” Koch said. This is a real benefit for the coronavirus, which can circulate much more easily than a year ago, when bars and restaurants were closed and the Germans were much more respectful of obstructive gestures.
This relaxation can be explained, as in most of Europe, by a certain fatigue with regard to measures of social distancing, accompanied by “a false impression that, thanks to vaccines, we can turn the page on this health crisis”. said Reintjes.
But there is also a special German aspect, due to the “general electoral effect” of the country, the epidemiologist thinks. During the election campaign before the September 26 vote, “the health crisis was not a major concern,” he explained. Moreover, politicians preferred to underline their successes in fighting the pandemic, which meant that “communication on health risk was weak, creating the impression that everything was going better,” he said.
For experts, the main lesson of this fourth wave in Germany is “that we have relied heavily on vaccines, to the detriment of other measures to fight the virus, such as tests and movement restrictions,” Reintjes said. “In the face of such a variant, close to 70 percent of the adult vaccinated population is simply too little to stop the epidemic,” Koch added.
Lessons for other countries
This is enough to make other European countries sweat with vaccination rates similar to Germany, such as France. “It is clear that what is happening here is likely to be reproduced on a European scale in the coming weeks,” Koch acknowledged.
None of the contributing factors – other than the electoral calendar – is unique to Germany. In fact, the number of cases has already started to increase significantly in Netherlands and in Denmark .
It is no coincidence that northern Europe is the first to be affected. “Like all respiratory viruses, Covid-19 is seasonal and countries on the southern continent like Spain and Italy are still protected from milder temperatures,” Koch explained.
But a new wave is not inevitable in any part of Europe. “The advantage is that we can easily learn from what is happening in our country,” Koch said. It is imperative that countries do not settle for a 70 per cent vaccination rate, although a year ago this rate was considered the holy grail for overcoming the epidemic. “It is essential that the authorities make it clear that the health crisis is still with us and that we should not relax, especially during the winter,” Reintjes said.
Finally, more attention should be paid to measures other than vaccination. This does not necessarily mean a return to economically painful solutions such as curfews or the closure of bars and restaurants. In the view of the two experts, measures such as large-scale free screening campaigns would make it possible to detect cases of contamination earlier and thus limit the spread of the virus.
It remains to be seen whether other countries will learn lessons from Germany in time. France is still far from being in the same situation as its eastern neighbor, with “only” 7,000 new cases of Covid-19 per day. But this represents an increase of 23 percent compared to last week. Time will tell if President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement about a third dose for people over 50 and the decision to look for masks in schools will be enough.