Switzerland ‘three weeks behind Austria’ as hospitals warn of triage

The Swiss government on Tuesday warned the country was “three weeks behind Austria”, amid steep rises in Covid cases and a dramatic surge in hospital admissions.

An ambulance approaches Geneva University Hospital. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Experts have warned Switzerland's hospitals may soon be overloaded. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, several Swiss experts warned that Switzerland was on course to reach Covid infection rates similar to those of neighbouring Austria in three weeks time. 

Switzerland’s Covid Taskforce chief Tanja Stadler warned “Switzerland is three weeks behind Austria”, pointing to current trends in case numbers and hospitalisations. 

On Monday, November 22nd, Austria shuttered bars and restaurants, while announcing that the Covid vaccine will become compulsory in February next year. 

READ MORE: Will Switzerland make the Covid vaccine compulsory?

The Taskforce said the number of people in hospital with Covid was increasing by 40 percent each week and will reach Austria-style capacities in mid-December, with surgeries cancelled and hospitals needing to make triage decisions about who to treat in intensive care. 

Some central Swiss cantons have already started putting plans in place to move patients due to capacity issues, while in Lucerne hospitals have been cancelling elective surgery appointments. 

“Elective interventions have already had to be postponed in order to be able to care for the people in the intensive care unit,” Lucerne health director Guido Graf told Blick. 

“We have to prepare for a new wave,” cantonal doctor Aglaé Tardin told the press conference. 

Federal Office of Public Health crisis management boss Patrick Mathys said “the situation is classified as critical.” 

New measures on the horizon? 

As recently on Thursday, Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset ruled out tightening the existing Covid measures at a federal level. 

At the press conference, Mathys said the government’s newly approved booster campaign would help lighten the load on hospitals. 

READ MORE: Switzerland approves Covid-19 boosters for everyone over 16

Mathys did however call upon the cantons to put in place measures to stop the spread of the virus. 

As it stands, cantons with lower vaccination rates are being hit harder than those where more people are vaccinated. 

Mathys highlighted that the infection rate is six times higher in Nidwalden than in Ticino. 

More than 70 percent of people in Ticino have received at least one shot of the vaccine, while Nidwalden’s corresponding rate of 65.8 is lower than the national average. 

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‘Over a million people’ in Switzerland could be infected with Covid this summer

Though Covid has not been a nationwide problem in Switzerland during recent several months, the virus is circulating again and rates of contamination are expected to soar in the coming weeks.

'Over a million people' in Switzerland could be infected with Covid this summer

While the new wave has not been expected to hit before fall or winter,  Swiss health officials now say 15 percent of Swiss population — more than 1 million people — could catch the virus before then.

This is a large number, considering that a total of 3.7 million people in Switzerland got infected since the beginning of the pandemic on February 24th, 2020.

“More than 80,000 new contaminations per week” are expected in the next two months, according to Tanja Stadler, the former head of the Covid-19 Task Force — much more than during the past two summers, when the rate of infections slowed down.

At the moment, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) reports 24,704 new cases in the past seven days — double of what it was in April.

“The numbers are expected to continue to rise. Note that most of infected people will not be tested, so the number of confirmed cases will be smaller on paper than in reality”, Stadler added.

Although according to FOPH, nearly all cases in Switzerland (99 percent) are caused by Omicron and its sub-variants, which are less severe that the original Covid viruses, “more vulnerable people are likely to end up in hospital, and long Covid cases are also likely to rise”, she said.

Stadler also noted that Omicron virus can’t be compared with the flu, “because we observe long-term consequences much more often during an infection with Omicron than during the flu. Also, Covid can trigger very large waves, even in summer, while large flu outbreaks are rare at this time of year”.

There is, however, some positive news.

“The most recent data shows that 97 percent of the adult population in Switzerland has antibodies against Covid thanks to vaccinations and previous infections”, Stadler said.

Also, “in the long term, things will stabilise. But in the years to come, there will probably be waves in the summer too”.

READ MORE: UPDATE: When will Switzerland roll out second Covid boosters?