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Delta variant: how worried should Germany be about a new wave of cases?

In the United Kingdom, the rapid spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus has caused a new spike in cases, leading the UK government to push back the day on which it ends its pandemic restrictions. Does Germany also risk being caught out by the more infectious variant?

Delta variant: how worried should Germany be about a new wave of cases?
A woman sneezing. Photo: dpa-Zentralbild | Patrick Pleul

There are a few reasons to be concerned about the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which originated in India. According to estimates by health specialists in the UK, it is anywhere between 30 percent and 100 percent more infectious than the previously dominant Alpha variant.

Meanwhile, a new study in the Lancet medical journal estimates that roughly double the number of infected people end up in hospital compared to the Alpha variant, which emerged in southern England last autumn.

It is for this reason that the UK government announced this week that it would delay by four weeks its “freedom day” – the day on which the last restrictions were set to be abolished.

The Delta variant now makes up over 90 percent of new infections in the UK, where the seven-day incidence has risen back up to around 70 cases per 100,000 people despite some 45 percent of adults having full inoculation.

Does the same fate await Germany?

Recent history suggests that once a variant has established itself in the UK, it is a matter of time before it makes its ways to Germany.

The so-called Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the UK last September, now makes up over 94 percent of new cases in Germany.

READ ALSO: Germany is in ‘race to vaccinate’ amid rise of Covid Delta variant, Merkel warns

The Germany government reacted to its rapid spread through the UK by suspending all but necessary travel between the two countries at the end of 2020.

But those measures failed to prevent the variant gaining the upper hand in Germany. Between the start of February and the end of the month, the variant had gone from representing 6 percent of all cases to 46 percent – a development that was a precursor to the third wave of infections that hit its climax around Easter. 

How present is Delta at the moment?

According to the latest report on variants of concern by the Robert Koch Institute, the Delta variant has only been identified in a single digit percentage of cases so far. 

But the latest report released on Wednesday evening showed an increase to 6.7 percent of all infections for the week ending June 6th, from 3.7 percent in the previous week. 

A closer look at the RKI charts shows that in most states the Delta variant currently doesn’t make up more than five percent of all cases.

In Bavaria for instance, it has hovered between 0,7 percent and 1.9 percent of all cases in recent weeks, although it is worth pointing out that the overall number of Delta variant cases in the southern state has decreased slightly in that time.

READ ALSO:

In Berlin, the Delta variant accounted for 9.2 percent of all cases in the week ending June 6th, but with overall numbers declining that was the same number of cases (18) as two weeks previously.

One case that has attracted particular attention is that of a student who returned from a trip to India where he is suspected to have picked up an infection with the Delta variant of the virus. Media reports suggest that the student, an Indian national, was 30 years old and had no known previous conditions.

The whole student accommodation block that he was living in was subsequently put into quarantine, while health officials went through the building conducting PCR tests.

What are experts predicting?

Christian Drosten, who is head of virology at the Charite Hospital in Berlin and a leading coronavirus specialist, has said that Delta or another variant will “certainly dominate the field by the autumn.”

At the same time, he voiced cautious optimism that the Delta variant did not appear to be taking over the epidemic in Germany with exponential growth

Speaking on a recent episode of his NDR corona podcast, Drosten claimed to have seen unofficial figures which suggest that the number of delta cases “is rising slightly but they certainly aren’t doubling in number.”

Olaf Gersemann, a journalist at Die Welt who writes their daily Covid report, said the stagnation of delta numbers was “very good news, especially given that numbers are sinking overall.”

SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach agreed, saying on Twitter that “the Delta variant has arrived in Germany too late to ruin the summer.”

What measures has Germany taken to tackle the variant?

The most notable measure taken by German authorities to try and prevent the Delta variant from being brought into the country is to put the UK back on its list of countries where a variant of concern is spreading.

That means that there are once again strict rules in place for entering Germany from the UK. Only German citizens and people with permanent residency are allowed to enter – and they have to go through a 14-day quarantine after arrival.

At the same time, the variant is likely to spread into other European countries as Brits go on holiday abroad over the summer. Some southern members of the EU that have economies dependant on tourism have dropped testing requirements for people arriving from the UK.

With Germans also likely to go on holiday to these sunny spots over the summer holidays, the risk of someone bringing back an infection from abroad will increase, say scientific experts.

‘Prevent superspreading’

Sandra Ciesek, who is head of virology at Frankfurt University Hospital, has said that people going on holiday during the summer will increase the risk of the Delta variant being brought into the country in larger numbers.

Ciesek said that people act differently when they are on holiday and are less likely to stick to rules on social distancing. Meanwhile, it is harder for the authorities to monitor people entering the country by car than those who come back in by plane.

SPD health spokesman Karl Lauterbach has said that Germany should slow down its policy of reopening society in light of the possible further spread of the delta variant.

“If we prevent superspreading, then we are on the safe side with this variant,” Lauterbach told the Rheinische Post newspaper.

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COVID-19

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.”

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