Is the lockdown boosting Austria’s sluggish vaccination rate?

Austria's low vaccination rate has been partly blamed for the Autumn serge in infections but is the lockdown and threat of mandatory jabs having any impact?

Is the lockdown boosting Austria's sluggish vaccination rate?
Is the fourth national lockdown boosting Covid-19 vaccination rates in Austria? Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP.

Since Monday November 22nd, residents in Austria have been in lockdown for the fourth time since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020.

The Austrian Federal Government deemed the move necessary after case rates continued to rise and hospitals started filling up with Covid-19 patients – especially in the hard hit provinces of Salzburg and Upper Austria.

A reason for the explosion in cases had been put down to Austria’s low vaccination rate, which last week was one of the lowest in Europe as well as other factors such as the colder weather and the declining protection offered by the vaccines.

READ MORE: Austria bans flights from southern Africa over new Covid-19 variant

So is the lockdown working to encourage more people to get vaccinated? The data seems to suggest it is.

Covid-19 vaccination rates in Austria

On November 1st, figures show that 63.2 percent of the eligible population in Austria was fully vaccinated, 66.4 percent had received just one dose and 3.7 percent had the booster shot.

Fast forward to November 25th and 66 percent are fully vaccinated while 70.5 percent have had one dose and 17.7 percent have received the booster.

This is quite a significant increase in the first dose and booster shot figures.

READ ALSO: Why is German-speaking Europe lagging on Covid vaccines?

According to the Health Ministry, the number of vaccinations being administered in Austria in the past seven days (as of November 26th) is up by 17.7 percent on the previous week.

The chart below from Our World in Data suggests Austria’s vaccination rate has been sharply increasing since the start of November. Austria introduced a lockdown just for the unvaccinated on November 15th before extending it to the general population.

Meanwhile, Reuters is reporting that in the past week Austria has administered around 10,000 Covid-19 vaccination doses every day. Two weeks ago that figure was estimated to be around 1,000 vaccinations a day.

However, Austria is still lagging behind its European neighbours, with Germany, Italy and France all registering a higher number of fully vaccinated people, as the chart below shows.

At the time of publication, none of these countries were in lockdown, although Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn was calling for “massive contract restrictions” after more than 76,000 new Covid infections were reported in one day.

As well as the national lockdown in Austria, the Federal Government also announced plans to make the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory from February 2022.

The announcement of Impfpflicht sparked protests in cities across Austria last weekend, but legal experts told The Local that compulsory vaccination is legally possible and likely to happen.

Will the lockdown and Impfpflicht be enough to tackle the fourth wave of Covid-19 in Austria? Only time will tell, but the data is showing a positive development so far.

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Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.