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COVID-19

Germany passes Covid-19 vaccine requirement for health workers

Germany on Friday passed legislation requiring healthcare workers to get inoculated against Covid-19, a first step toward possible mandatory jabs for all adults.

A doctor at a vaccination clinic
A healthcare worker prepares a dose of vaccine at a vaccination centre in Maiz, Rhineland-Palatinate. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

A large majority of Bundestag MPs voted for the measure requiring staff at hospitals, doctors’ offices and care homes to be fully vaccinated.

The Bundesrat or upper house passed the bill later Friday following similar moves by France, Italy, Britain and Greece.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, who took office this week with the new government under Olaf Scholz, asked deputies from across the political spectrum to support the measure to protect vulnerable groups.

“The pandemic is a mission for us all – this isn’t a moment for party politics,” he told the chamber before the vote.

He said he hoped Germany could break a vicious fourth wave of the outbreak by the end of the month so that people could visit their families over the holidays.

“That’s what we’re fighting for,” he said, stressing the need to slow the spread of the Delta virus variant and stop the Omicron strain from gaining ground.

Under the new plans, people who work in clinics, surgeries and care homes will have to present proof of full vaccination – or a doctor’s note explaining why they can’t get vaccinated – by March 15th next year.

From March 16th, anyone wanting to work in medicine or care in Germany will need to provide proof of vaccination before starting their jobs.

Speaking to Spiegel on Friday, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said people who disobeyed the law would be punished with fines rather than prison sentences.

“Nobody will have to go to prison,” he told reporters, adding that the fines would be set high enough to be “effective”.

He also spoke out in favour of extending the vaccine mandate to include teachers and people who work in nurseries. 

READ ALSO: German health workers must be fully vaccinated by March 15th 2022

Scholz, who took power on Wednesday, has come out strongly in favour of mandatory vaccinations after the voluntary campaign fell short with just under 70 percent of the population fully inoculated. Around 21 percent have received a booster shot.

Expanding the mandate to the general public would see the country follow the example of neighbouring Austria, which is requiring vaccinations from February.

Majority supports mandate

Angela Merkel’s previous government had always ruled out mandatory vaccination, but calls for action have grown louder in Germany as infection rates hit record highs and hospitals buckle under the strain.

Around 89 percent of German care home staff and 90 percent of medical workers are fully vaccinated, according to an official estimate from October, but with wide variation among regions.

“Mandatory vaccination is a really difficult issue,” Markus Heim, a senior doctor in the intensive care unit at Munich’s Rechts der Isar hospital, told AFP.

“Everyone who works in the medical sector wants more people to be inoculated and if that can be achieved by requiring it then a lot of people working here would support it.”

Mandatory jabs are now backed by politicians from across the spectrum and Scholz aims to have a policy in force by February or March to head off a possible fifth wave of infections.

A clear majority of Germans also supports the move, with 68 percent telling public broadcaster ZDF in a poll published Friday that they support a general requirement.

The country recorded 61,288 new infections on Friday and 484 deaths, according to the Robert Koch Institute health agency. Nearly 105,000 people have died with coronavirus.

Beyond the new vaccine mandate, the amendments to the Infection Protection Act are intended to equip states with the powers they need to fight the current Covid wave. 

READ ALSO:

These include new clauses that will allow states to close restaurants, bars and clubs and ban large gatherings and events when Covid incidences are particularly high.

“We’re providing the means to break the Delta wave regionally and nationally, and we’re doing all we can to prevent a powerful Omicron variant,” Lauterbach told parliamentarians ahead of the vote. 

To hit government vaccine targets, the government will also permit vets, dentists and pharmacists to administer Covid jabs, as long as they recieve medical training beforehand.

In addition, people on ‘Kurzarbeit’ will in future recieve more generous payouts under government plans to top up the wages of employees who have had their working hours reduced during the pandemic. 

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COVID-19

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany. 

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