Covid-19 variant: Is the Flensburg outbreak a red flag for Germany?

The northern German city of Flensburg is going into a tough lockdown after a huge rise in Covid-19 cases - many of them stemming from the B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the UK. What does this mean for Germany?

Covid-19 variant: Is the Flensburg outbreak a red flag for Germany?
The city of Flensburg. Photo: DPA

Residents in the Schleswig-Holstein city, which lies close to the Danish border, will face a night time curfew, while contact restrictions will be tightened.

The area is seeing a large Covid outbreak fuelled by the more contagious variant discovered in Britain.

On Friday there were on average just over 177 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents within a seven-day period in Flensburg – while the overall number for the state of Schleswig-Holstein was 49.1.

The 7-day incidence for Germany on Friday stood at 56.8. The number has been falling in the previous weeks, but has stagnated slightly in recent days, leading experts to worry that the spread of coronavirus variants will push up infections.

READ ALSO: How and why Germany tightened its target for lifting lockdown measures

Schleswig-Holstein's state premier Daniel Günther, of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, said the infection figures in Flensburg, which has a population of around 89,500, were a “cause for great concern”.

Flensburg's mayor Simone Lange, of the Social Democrats, said the “constantly high incidence rate and a share of mutations in the infections of well over 33 percent,” meant the city needed to take swift and strong action.

A study by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) even suggests that mutations could now be responsible for more than half of the cases in Flensburg. For comparison, the British variant of the virus accounts for around 22 per cent of cases in Germany, federal Health Minister Jens Spahn announced this week.

Does Flensburg show what could be in store for Germany?

SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach said the Flensburg cases is the “first example of what we could face with further spread of UK B.1.1.7”.

Lauterbach said a strict lockdown until the incidence is below 35 again was needed.

For at least a week and possibly longer, Flensburg residents will only be allowed to leave their homes from 9pm to 5am if they have a valid reason to do so. Visits to the doctor and to go to work are allowed.

Contact restrictions will also be tightened: a household in Flensburg won't be allowed to meet with anyone outside the household. Exceptions apply to visits to hospitals, couples who live apart, and children with separated parents.

At the moment across Germany, households are allowed to meet with one other person and they should have a social bubble to avoid meeting lots of different people.

IN NUMBERS: What is the coronavirus situation around Germany?

What's happening in Denmark?

There are concerns about the British variant spreading in Denmark, which lies just a few kilometres from Flensburg. Tighter border controls were brought in this week in Denmark's border regions, including with Germany.

According to preliminary figures from the Danish Statens Serum Institut (SSI), which are updated daily, the British Covid mutant was detected in 47.4 percent of the sequenced coronavirus samples from the previous week.

The share was reportedly just under two percent at the end of December.

The SSI expects the variant to account for more than 80 percent of all Covid cases in Denmark as early as the beginning of March. As a result, the reproductive number, which shows how many people an infected person goes onto infect, is likely to increase to 1.1, according to experts – even without relaxing measures.

When the R number is above 1, the number of infection goes up quickly.

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Is the pandemic over in Germany?

As much of Germany lifts - or prepares to lift - the last remaining Covid-19 measures, intensive care units say Covid-19 admissions are no longer straining the system.

Is the pandemic over in Germany?

Despite a difficult winter of respiratory illnesses, intensive care units in Germany say Covid-19 admissions have almost halved. The number of cases having to be treated in the ICU has gone down to 800 from 1,500 at the beginning of this month.

“Corona is no longer a problem in intensive care units,” Gernot Marx, Vice President of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, told the German Editorial Network. “A the moment, we don’t have to think every day about how to still ensure the care of patients, but how to actually run a service that can help.”

Marx said the drop has allowed them to catch up on many postponed surgeries.

The number of sick employees in hospitals is also falling, helping to relieve the pressure on personnel.

The easing pressure on hospitals correlates with the assessment of prominent virologist and head of the Virology department at Berlin’s Charite – Christian Drosten – who said in December that the pandemic was close to ending, with the winter wave being an endemic one.

German federal and state governments are now in the midst of lifting the last of the country’s pandemic-related restrictions. Free Covid-19 antigen tests for most people, with exceptions for medical personnel, recently ended.

READ ALSO: Free Covid-19 tests end in Germany

Six federal states – Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, Thuringia, Lower Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein – have ended mandatory isolation periods for people who test positive for Covid-19.

Bavaria, Saxony-Anhalt, and Schleswig-Holstein have ended the requirement to wear FFP2 masks on public transport, while Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony, Thuringia, and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania will follow suit on February 2nd.

At that time, the federal government will also drop its requirement for masks to be worn on long-distance trains. Labour Minister Hubertus Heil says that’s when he also intends to exempt workplaces – apart from medical locations – from a mask requirement.

READ ALSO: Germany to drop mask mandate in trains and buses from February 2nd

Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg will also end the requirement for patients to wear a mask in doctor’s offices. That’s a requirement that, so far, will stay in place everywhere else. Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has also said that he thinks this requirement should remain. 

But some public health insurers and general practitioners are calling for a nationwide end to the obligation for wearing masks in doctor’s offices.

“The pandemic situation is over,” National Association of Statutory Health Physicians (KBV) Chair Andreas Gassen told the RND network. “High-risk patients aren’t treated in all practices. It should generally be left up to medical colleagues to decide whether they want to require masks in their practices.”