Summer Travels Bring Rising Coronavirus Numbers to Germany
The virus seems to be spreading again in Germany as people begin returning from their summer travels. We have learned a lot about controlling COVID-19, but is the government in Berlin doing enough?
05.08.2020, 17.15 Uhr
By Markus Becker, Felix Bohr, Markus Feldenkirchen, Jan Friedmann, Hubert Gude, Claus Hecking, Dietmar Hipp, Martin Knobbe, Julia Köppe, Matthias Kreienbrink, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Walter Mayr, Veit Medick, Marcel Rosenbach, Lydia Rosenfelder, Alexander Sarovic, Michael Sauga, Cornelia Schmergal, Hilmar Schmundt, Ansgar Siemens, Benita Stalmann, Gerald Traufetter, Christian Volk, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt, Rebekka Wiese and Steffen Winter
Akhan Seyithan disembarked at Terminal 2 of the Hamburg airport last Wednesday afternoon and wasn’t totally sure what to make of the commotion his arrival had caused. “I have to go into quarantine,” he said, looking at his suitcase with a befuddled expression on his face. “For health reasons.”
The 67-year-old retiree with roots in Turkey had just flown in from Izmir. He says he wore his blue mask the whole time during his visit with relatives in Izmir and also during his nephew’s funeral. He was only in Turkey for just a few days.
But because the country is listed by German authorities as one of 130 coronavirus risk areas, he was handed a notice upon arrival, printed in German and English. It read that passengers who had not received a negative test for SARS-CoV-2 within 48 hours of their arrival were required to “immediately self-isolate at home or in a suitable accommodation” for a period of two weeks. Seyithan must also immediately get in touch with the health authorities of the Hamburg neighborhood where he lives.
He said he would rather have just taken a test at the airport, but the testing center was only just getting set up and wouldn’t begin operations for another few days – right about when summer vacation ends for Hamburg’s schoolchildren. Indeed, you might think it would have made more sense for the testing site to have been set up earlier, in time for those returning at the end of the summer travel season. And you wouldn’t be wrong.
Once again, political leaders in Germany are looking just about as clueless as they did at the beginning of the pandemic. There is, though, one important difference: Five months have passed since then, during which time there was plenty of time to prepare for a second wave of infections. But apparently that didn’t happen.
Last Thursday, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country’s leading public health authority, reported 902 new infections in the country, the highest number since June 17. Is this the beginning of the much-feared second wave? “We are in the middle of a rapidly developing pandemic,” RKI President Lothar Wieler said last Tuesday.
Karl Lauterbach, a parliamentarian with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and a health expert in his own right said in an interview with DER SPIEGEL that the second wave was “already developing.” Saxony Governor Michael Kretschmer began speaking of its arrival long before that. Meanwhile, his counterpart in Thuringia, the Left Party politician Bodo Ramelow, says: “I would warn against falling pray to frenzy, fear-mongering and becoming obsessed with a second wave.”
Stubborn and Unpredictable
No matter how you view developments, it is undeniable that the situation is worsening. And it is primarily those people returning from their summer vacations that are presenting the greatest problems to Germany’s politicians and public agencies.
How should infection developments in other countries be assessed? How should returnees be registered? What testing rules are appropriate? There are no good or clear answers to these questions, despite the fact that summer vacations in German states like Berlin and Hamburg are already coming to an end, even as they are just starting in places like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.
On top of that is a rising number of outbreaks inside Germany. The virus, which had seemed to be under control, is proving to be quite stubborn and unpredictable, popping up here and there as though wanting to make all those look foolish who thought that Germany would be able to quickly defeat the pathogen.
Things are still looking far better here than in the United States, Sweden or Brazil. But that isn’t enough to protect Germany from a second wave that could pose an even greater threat to health and prosperity. How can those threats be warded off? And at what price?
Germans this summer are once again enjoying the freedoms they temporarily gave up during the spring lockdown and are going to parties, visiting with friends and hanging out at bars. It is hard to imagine that the imposition of limitations would be as readily accepted as during the first lockdown. A new approach must be found – a new, cleverly assembled arsenal of measures. Mask-wearing requirements are insufficient, as are the tiresome calls to maintain distance from others.
Scientists in particular are exploring new strategies, with unexpected approaches like asking people to provide their fitness data or performing tests on wastewater. The business community has climbed higher on the learning curve. It’s only politicians who seem to be falling back into a strange mixture of indolence and confusion.
Difficult to Predict
The virus’ capriciousness, to be sure, makes it difficult to predict just how bad the second wave might be. The city of Weimar in Thuringia is a prime example for how SARS-CoV-2 can suddenly beset a place that had thus far remained largely spared. A man from Krefeld in North Rhine-Westphalia recently visited his brother in Weimar and went to a party while he was there, infecting two people with the virus.
The man from Krefeld then traveled onward to the northern Bavarian city of Hof, where there are now dozens of positive cases. Just over a week after his visit, at 5:38 p.m. on July 21, the health authorities in Hof informed their counterparts in Weimar that the man had tested positive for the coronavirus.
More on Coronavirus
Some of the people he interacted with in the city had developed symptoms by then, but thought it was just the normal summer flu. Tests were performed, and on July 22, it became apparent that Weimar suddenly had nine new cases, making for a total of 11, when the two previous infections were included.
Contact tracing proved difficult. Schools have been out in the state of Thuringia since July 20 and many of the contacts were traveling. Weimar expanded its crisis team and sent more than 200 people into quarantine. But even those positive cases who weren’t traveling had trouble remembering all of the people they had come into contact with – the barber, the occupational therapist, etc. Two days later, there were 16 positive cases with 100 tests still outstanding.
By last Tuesday, there were 19 cases in the city. One was a young man who had arrived from Bolivia with the virus. He had flown from South America to Spain and then onward to Munich. From Munich, he took the train to Berlin and then rode the bus from Berlin to Weimar.
Once he got home to his shared apartment, he self-isolated. But the city’s crisis team spent several days afterward trying to figure out who else got off the bus with him in Weimar. Other officials are responsible for tracing his possible contacts on the train and in the plane.
Weimar Mayor Ralf Kirsten is the head of the city’s crisis team. A former police chief, he says that they had expected a few cases in the period after the summer holidays, at the end of August or in early September. But they didn’t expect it to arrive so early in the summer. Weimar’s top public health official, Isabelle Oberbeck, says that for her, “the number of new infections appearing simultaneously is new.”
Bavaria has set up testing facilities on some highways leading into Germany from the south and east, such as here on the A-8.
Foto: Sven Hoppe / dpa
There are now fears in Weimar of a second lockdown. “We are a city that depends on tourists,” says Kirsten. “Further closures would be a catastrophe.” As an initial step, the city has tightened mask-wearing requirements.
It was, of course, to be expected that this wouldn’t be a carefree summer. Both Chancellor Angela Merkel and Health Minister Jens Spahn issued warnings at the beginning of summer that infection numbers would climb during the travel season. Which makes it all the more surprising just how slowly efforts have developed to address the problems generated by travelers. We’re already in the middle of the holiday season, but Germany’s federal and state governments still don’t have a clear strategy for dealing with the threat. Currently, some 10 percent of new infections are people returning from vacation.
The Role of the German Constitution
Alarmed by the images of partying tourists in large European cities, governors of German states asked Spahn on July 16 to develop a plan for dealing with returnees. Spahn and state health ministers were to develop criteria for “when and how extensive testing for such people makes sense.”
Two weeks ago on Wednesday, a meeting between the federal and state health ministers adjourned with no formal conclusions. Two days later, they authorized Spahn to determine the legality of imposing a testing requirement. The group had hardly managed to formulate its agreement on the issue before the German press agency DPA reported: “Söder demands coronavirus testing requirements at German airports.”
It was hardly atypical behavior for Markus Söder, the governor of Bavaria. Throughout the crisis, he has sought to position himself as the country’s foremost COVID-19 warrior. Some believe he is trying to position himself to take over the Chancellery once Merkel’s term ends next year. In the weekend following Söder’s demand, Spahn revisited his position on the issue and announced last Monday that he would be issuing a decree requiring tests at German airports, arguing that the rising number of cases made it necessary.
The decree, though, could be at odds with the German constitution, experts believe, given that it isn’t clear if the federal government has the power to impose such tests. The Protection Against Infection Act does provide the federal government with the power to issue such a decree. But according to an assessment compiled by the German parliament’s research service, the “division of legislative powers according to the constitution” means that implementing the Protection Against Infection Act is up to the states. “There is no practical role for the Federal Health Ministry” in issuing such decrees, according to the assessment.
DER SPIEGEL 21/2020
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 32/2020 (August 1, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
The test mandate is also controversial within the federal government. Last Monday, Spahn’s ministry asked the Justice Ministry for its assessment of the legality of mandatory tests. There, a different model is favored: Instead of forcing those returning from risk areas to submit to a mandatory coronavirus test, the plan calls for them to be given the choice between a quick test and a 14-day period of quarantine.
The Interior Ministry was also displeased by Spahn’s proposal. It set off a flurry of telephone calls and meetings to figure out how such testing might look in the real world and who would be responsible for recording the personal data of travelers. Who would interview them? Who is responsible for figuring out which local health office must be informed?
Testing Returnees from Risk Areas
There’s also another problem: Nobody knows how many returnees from risk areas are to be expected. All that is known is that Germany currently has the ability to test 1.2 million people per week. It is also known that some 2,000 people are arriving every day from risk areas at each of Berlin’s two airports. In Frankfurt, around 16,000 people per week are flying in from such areas.
The SPD, Merkel’s junior government coalition partner, claims that Spahn’s mandatory testing proposal took them by surprise. The idea, they say, only surfaced very recently once test numbers began rising. Still, a cabinet member says Merkel mentioned her concern several weeks ago that Turkish-Germans returning home from summer vacations in Turkey could represent a threat. Attempts to reach an agreement with the Turkish government on testing such travelers proved unsuccessful.
Much attention has recently been focused on large raves held in major German cities, such as this one in Berlin’s Hasenheide park recently.
Foto: Florian Müller
European Union officials in Brussels are also irked by Spahn’s plans for testing returnees from risk areas. Luxembourg, for example, is considered a risk area by the RKI along with the U.S., Egypt and Turkey. “The German government gave us no advance warning, nor did they consult with us,” says Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. “We learned about it from the media.” The fact that many people commute between the two countries makes the issue particularly prickly.
On Wednesday, Asselborn called in German Ambassador Heinrich Kreft for a discussion in his ministry, a rather unusual step to take among EU neighbors. “We aren’t a slaughterhouse and we aren’t Gütersloh,” says Asselborn, referring to the site of a significant June outbreak in Germany. “We are an EU country.”
The European Commission has said that member states “should not react to local coronavirus outbreaks with blanket restrictions against other countries.” But such decisions are ultimately made far away from Brussels in the capital cities of member states.
Initially, fears were greatest when it came to people returning from Mallorca, large numbers of whom had ignored distancing rules due to excess alcohol consumption.
Britain, for example, has issued a mandatory quarantine requirement for all travelers returning from Spain. Initially, fears were greatest when it came to people returning from Mallorca, large numbers of whom had ignored distancing rules due to excess alcohol consumption. But local authorities reacted quickly, closing down bars and even entire streets that tend to be popular among the party crowd. Now, parties there are a rarity and strict mask requirements are in place everywhere. The result: Few new infections have been registered in the region recently.
The situation is much worse in the hotspots of Catalonia, Aragón and Navarra, for which the Foreign Ministry in Berlin has issued a travel warning. “The differences within Spain are enormous,” says Amós García Rojas, a virologist who is also president of the Spanish Vaccinology Association. “In most regions, the pandemic is under control.” In those places, he says, the risk to tourists is often no greater than in their homelands. Still, many travelers have likely become more hesitant about heading to Spain – a fact which could shatter hopes in Spain that the tourism sector will quickly recover.
The virus, though, hasn’t shown much interest in helping the tourism sector recover, not even in tiny St. Wolfgang in Austria. The village is located on the shores of Lake Wolfgang, where former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl liked to vacation, enjoying the gentle breeze wafting across the waters. But despite Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s promise that his country was among the safest vacation destinations in the world, an intern in St. Wolfgang fell ill and infected a number of her colleagues not long ago. Now, the town with a population of just 3,000 people has 70 coronavirus cases. Gudrun Peter, owner of a luxury hotel in the destination town, says she believes “that the season is now more or less over.”
The Austrian government in Vienna had developed a plan to test up to 65,000 tourism industry workers per week as a way of saving the multibillion-euro summer season. But it hasn’t even carried out a third of that number. Restaurateurs and tourism industry strategists have grown concerned about taking advantage of the testing capacity for fear of a cluster of positive results.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that St. Wolfgang will become a second Ischgl. Carmen Breitwieser, a member of the crisis team for the Austrian state in which St. Wolfgang is located, believes it will be possible to bring the outbreak under control.
But the two examples of Spain and Austria show how difficult it is to come up with a coherent policy for people returning from holiday travels. According to numbers from the state health authority in Baden-Württemberg, every sixth coronavirus infection is brought in from outside. Since mid-June, the state has registered 340 infections in people returning from trips abroad. Around 80 percent of them came in from countries not belonging to the EU, particularly from Serbia and Kosovo. Most of them drove their own cars or traveled by bus.
Bavaria has taken the step of setting up tent stations along highways coming into Germany from the south and east, but absent strict border controls for everyone, it is impossible to determine if people are driving in from St. Wolfgang, Serbia or Kosovo and how likely it may be that they are carrying the virus along with them. “If we were to stop everyone, traffic would be backed up all the way to Vienna,” says German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who hastened to add that such a step was not under consideration. “Border controls should only be considered as an absolute last resort.” He says that spot checks would, however, be carried out.
The larger problem at the moment, though, is more local in nature, with outbreaks inside Germany. Ironically, some of the largest such hotspots have developed in Bavaria, the state governed by Markus Söder. A vegetable farm in Lower Bavaria recently saw an outbreak of some 180 cases among seasonal workers from Eastern Europe. Most had been brought in to help with the cucumber harvest and were being housed in crowded containers.
“In spring, it was the strong beer festivals and this summer, it is the large agricultural operations that are causing significant outbreaks in Söder’s Bavaria,” says Ludwig Hartmann, opposition leader in Bavarian state parliament and a member of the Green Party. Söder, he says, “didn’t identify predictable infection hotspots early enough or precisely enough.” The numbers, he says, simply didn’t fit with the oversized role Söder wants to play in this crisis.
Several German states, including Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saarland are mandating that vacationers from the affected region in Bavaria provide a negative coronavirus test upon entry. The result last week was a long line in front of the quickly established drive-in testing station in the town of Mamming. People were eager to secure a negative test so they could go on vacation as planned.
Both the Gütersloh outbreak and the recent spike in Lower Bavaria have served to illustrate that crowded living conditions continue to be among the most important drivers of the pandemic. Their residents have tended to be seasonal workers, though refugee hostels have been hit as well. One such shelter in the Lichtenberg neighborhood of Berlin, for example, recently saw 42 infections in a short span of time.
Still, much of the public debate tends to focus on the large parties thrown by young people. Most recently, the spotlight has been on open-air raves in large cities, such as the one in Berlin’s Hasenheide park a little over a week ago.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn has irked people both at home and abroad with his indecision on whether to impose mandatory coronavirus testing for people returning from risk areas.
Foto: Henning Schacht
A 29-year-old woman who we’ll call Cathy was at a Gay Pride celebration with a couple of friends in a bar in Berlin that day. The official annual party had, of course, been cancelled and soon, the friends began wondering what they should do next.
“We had all heard that there was going to be another rave in Hasenheide park,” Cathy says, adding that they quickly decided to check it out. Other friends were already there. “It wasn’t easy to find them. The park was already completely packed at midnight.” They did, though, ultimately manage to hook up.
“A New Burst of Energy”
Cathy says that she had missed the feeling of partying together with other people in the last few months. She works as a drag performer and her recent acts had only been online. “But communicating with people via chat is not the same as being at an open-air rave.” She says, though, that the Hasenheide party wasn’t actually a rave; it was more of a collection of several different groups that largely kept to themselves. “There were certainly also people who had sex in the park. But that’s nothing new for Hasenheide.”
Cathy enjoyed the evening. “It gave me a new burst of energy. It was nice to feel like I was part of something larger.” She says she was a bit mystified when she later read reports about the rave in the media because they didn’t accurately reflect her experience. It wasn’t, she says, hordes of people mingling together without masks. “I don’t have a bad conscience as a result of being there, because I took care of myself and others.”
It isn’t yet clear what effect the large, open-air parties will have on infection numbers. Epidemiologist Lauterbach believes it will be significant and has demanded that strict penalties be imposed. Yet the current threat isn’t necessarily individual outbreaks, but the growing numbers around the country. Last Thursday, only 80 districts in Germany had reported no new infections within the preceding seven days, down from 125 just two-and-a-half weeks earlier.
Some of the increase could be explained by the greater number of tests being carried out. In the week ending last Thursday, laboratories in Germany evaluated more than 560,000 tests. In the two preceding weeks, that number was 510,000. The number of positive tests rose from 0.6 percent to 0.8 percent.
Another signal for a deterioration of the situation would be a rise in the number of people being admitted to hospitals with COVID-19. Currently, though, around a third of Germany’s 33,000 intensive care beds remain empty and the number of coronavirus patients requiring intensive care has stagnated for weeks at around 260 patients per day. But because it often takes weeks for infections to turn into outbreaks and for outbreaks to trigger a rising number of fatalities, hospital statistics tend to lag behind.
The Second Wave?
When it comes to determining if Germany is currently seeing the beginnings of a second wave, it would be helpful if there was a widely accepted definition for that term. But there isn’t. Because the virus never really disappeared, some scientists prefer speaking about individual spikes in the infection curve. The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, has noted that from a global point of view, the world is in the midst of a single, vast wave. In just the last six weeks, the number of cases worldwide has doubled.
When it comes to determining if Germany is currently seeing the beginnings of a second wave, it would be helpful if there was a widely accepted definition for that term. But there isn’t.
At the national level, though, the view is rather different. Many countries have been able to significantly sink infection numbers through the imposition of strict limits on public life. From that perspective, the second wave would be a situation in which infections resumed rising exponentially and once again began putting intense pressure on the health-care system.
That appears to be what is happening in Australia. For months, the country was seen as a success story in confronting the first phase of the pandemic. The government reacted quickly and resolutely, imposing travel bans and instituting lockdowns. By mid-May, the number of new infections recorded daily could be counted on two hands. Beaches, restaurants and fitness studios all reopened. Normality had almost returned.
But that success is now in danger. Last Thursday, authorities announced a record 747 new infections, almost all of them in the southern state of Victoria, which includes the city of Melbourne, population 5 million. During the first wave, the highest number of new infections recorded on a single day was 469.
A new lockdown has been in place in Victoria since early July and those who do have to leave their homes are required to wear a mask. The borders to the two neighboring states of New South Wales and South Australia were sealed.
In early July, Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews issued a warning to the people of his state, saying that many people had the feeling that the pandemic was something that affected people in other parts of the world. “But you should be scared of this,” he said. “I am scared of this.” He added that complacency was one of the reasons for the pandemic’s comeback. According to the government, nine out of 10 people who tested positive between July 7 and July 21 had not self-isolated, even after they began showing symptoms.
That cannot be allowed to happen in Germany. So, what can people do to avoid a second nightmare? What can scientists, business leaders and politicians do?
When it comes to ordinary people, many in Germany are being much less attentive these days than they were at the beginning of the crisis. The public transportation authority in Berlin, for example, has registered fully 30,000 violations of mask-wearing requirements in buses and subways in the last three weeks. Furthermore, reservations about coronavirus measures have risen, which is partly a function of their efficacy, but also of the length of time they have been in place. Over the weekend, Berlin saw a significant demonstration against coronavirus measures attended by an estimated 20,000 people.
The Robert Koch Institute, together with the University of Erfurt and other institutions, has sought to investigate public attitudes toward the pandemic. Called “COVID-19 Snapshot Monitoring,” the analysis found that on March 24, 34 percent of people thought it was “extremely or very likely” that they would become infected with the virus. By July 21, that number had fallen to 16 percent.
The acceptance of limitations has dropped significantly since March. As such, with a second wave of infections possibly looming, it will be important to find a careful balance between reasonable measures and the desire many have to enjoy their freedoms. It will be important to clearly communicate to the populace that small incursions on individual freedoms could eliminate the need for more significant measures, such as a second lockdown.
Scientists are currently doing all they can to find the best ways to limit the spread of the virus while causing the least amount of collateral damage possible. Part of that effort has been the collection and analysis of data collected in the spring. Some of their results are hardly surprising, but others are unexpected.
The most important realization: The closure of schools, childcare facilities and universities sinks the effective reproduction number by a maximum of 0.34. This value, the so-called R-Number, indicates the average number of people an infected person passes the virus on to. While 0.34 may not sound like a significant reduction, it can make a decisive difference. Whereas an R-Number of 1.34 indicates that the pandemic is spreading, a value of 1.0 indicates stagnation.
Studies have shown that wearing masks can significantly slow the spread of the coronavirus. Even in Germany, though, there are those who refuse to wear them. This image is from a medical supply warehouse in Germany.
Foto: Marcel Kusch / dpa
That is the result of a comprehensive study on the issue conducted by a team under the leadership of Peter Klimek, a statistician at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna. Klimek and his team evaluated officially reported coronavirus infections along with 53 anti-pandemic measures from 76 different regions around the world, including Germany, France, Sweden, Japan, China and 24 U.S. states.
The Importance of Communication
Thus far, the paper has only been posted on the preprint server and hasn’t yet been evaluated by other experts. But when contacted by DER SPIEGEL, several scientists reported having a positive first impression of the methodology used by the study. Especially since its results in many areas resemble those of other studies.
According to its findings, the banning of large gatherings such as football matches and concerts doesn’t actually help much. “Large events are, of course, quite visible, but there aren’t all that many of them,” says Klimek. More significant, he argues, are the hundreds of thousands of private meetups that only rarely make it into the headlines – at the local pub, in churches or at family get-togethers. Avoiding these kinds of events, Klimek says, is where the focus should lie.
Perhaps the most surprising result from the study is that communication can be found in third place on the list of effective tools. “Communication is one of the most efficient measures, because it can have a tremendous effect if several million people are convinced to change their behavior by a televised speech or a website,” Klimek says. Social distancing, hand washing, sneezing in the crook of your arm: All of that is voluntary and is virtually impossible to monitor. Decrees, in other words, aren’t nearly as effective as persuasion.
Measuring people’s temperatures at the airport is overrated, the team found, as are strict prohibitions on leaving home, such as the one imposed in France. The virus doesn’t really care if you go out or not, provided you behave responsibly while outside and don’t hang out at a crowded party for hours at a time.
The virus doesn’t really care if you go out or not, provided you behave responsibly while outside and don’t hang out at a crowded party for hours at a time.
The results of Klimek’s study, though, partially contradict a widely respected paper produced by a research team at Imperial College London, which was published in the scientific journal Nature in June. That paper concluded that lockdowns are effective. Indeed, it appears that the studies produced on coronavirus are similar to the statistics compiled: indisputability is difficult to come by.
The Viennese study focused on the time period from March to April and rated contact tracing rather low on the list of effective measures. That could, however, be because at the height of the first wave, contact tracing wasn’t possible and that its successes only become apparent once numbers drop to a manageable total.
Still, there are a couple of lessons to be learned. One is that speed is vital: The more quickly measures are imposed, the better they work. The analysis of 172 observational studies showed that wearing masks apparently results in a lower risk of becoming infected. Both scientists and politicians had a different view of masks at the beginning of the study – and were too slow in imposing mask-wearing requirements.
And we are still learning. Our knowledge about the behavior of the virus increases with each new outbreak in this vast, doleful experiment on humanity. The measures imposed during the first wave were rather heavy-handed and untargeted, says Klimek. “Hopefully, we will be able to work with the scalpel in the second wave.”
The tests continue to be a source of hope, even if they are seen as resource intensive, slow and expensive. Indeed, those concerns are why alternative approaches are currently under consideration, such as saliva testing. Such tests have the advantage of obviating the need for uncomfortable nasal-throat swabs and they make it possible for everyone to simply stick a swab in their own mouth, perhaps even at home without supervision. That would, of course, require that people honestly report their result should it be positive. And that could be too much to ask if, for example, that person had tickets to the weekend football match.
German Interior Minister Seehofer is one of those in favor of expanding testing to cover as many people as possible. “My view has always been: test, test, test. That’s the only way we can get an overview of the spread of the virus,” he says.
Beyond testing, new kinds of early warning systems are being tested or discussed. The corona data-donation app from the Robert Koch Institute, for example, could work as a kind of thermometer for the country. Already, half a million people in Germany are sending data to the RKI every day from their fitness tracking devices.
The average resting heart rate of all donors is around 60 beats per minute. When that rate rises, it is an indication of an added strain – perhaps the summer flu, perhaps COVID-19. Since the end of June, the average heart rate of data donors in Germany has increased slightly. Is that a harbinger of the second wave? This week, the RKI is starting to release its heart rate data each day. The data donated still doesn’t amount to a representative experiment nor have any scientific studies been performed on its efficacy.
Data from wastewater treatment plants could also help identify coronavirus hotspots earlier. For years, wastewater has been analyzed for traces of illegal drugs. Now, though, scientists at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig have begun searching for virus particles in wastewater. Results on the practice from Australia have been promising, according to a paper that is set for publication in October in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
That kind of wastewater warning system could provide a several-day head start for the health authorities and would even include those cases that are free of symptoms or who are unwilling to be tested for fear of quarantine.
In combination, heart rate and wastewater research could help tide us over until a vaccine can be found. And there are currently some 160 projects around the world engaged in that search, with three of them already in laborious phase III clinical trials, in which the potential vaccine is tested on more than 1,000 volunteers. Those trials are underway in the U.S., Britain and Germany. A paradox that some studies are running into, though, is that research has been slowed in several countries because of low infection rates: Too few volunteers are falling ill to determine whether the vaccine is able to protect them. The more severely a population is affected by the coronavirus, the more quickly researchers are able to amass the necessary data.
Moscow has claimed that a group from Russia will be the first to find a vaccine, with government sources claiming that it will soon be possible to vaccinate the country’s population – despite the fact that phase III trials have not yet begun.
The more severely a population is affected by the coronavirus, the more quickly researchers are able to amass the necessary data.
Whatever the case, a reliably tested vaccine will certainly not be available in time to prevent a second wave this year. And if such a wave does arrive, it will have extremely negative effects on the economy, with bankruptcies and millions of unemployed. In early June, the Organization for Econonic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecast that in the event of a second wave, global economic output would fall an additional 2 percentage points.
Still, despite the catastrophic state of the U.S. export market, the mood in German companies remains rather optimistic. Timo Wollmershäuser, a senior economist at the ifo institute in Munich, spoke recently of a “surprisingly positive development.” In May, he forecast that the economy would shrink by 6.7 percent this year. Now, he believes the contraction will amount to just 5.1 percent.
Government economists are also less alarmed than they were not long ago. If the second wave remains limited to individual regions and economic sectors, they believe that additional economic stimulus packages won’t be necessary. And even if a second lockdown becomes unexpectedly necessary, officials believe they are prepared. The country has, to be sure, taken on more debt in recent weeks than ever before. But Germany’s sovereign debt load still remains far below the record highs seen during the financial crisis. The message from several ministries in Berlin is that if it gets bad again, Germany still has sufficient resources.
In addition, many companies have now learned how to keep the virus at bay. The Bavarian auto parts supplier Wabasto – the site of the earliest coronavirus infection in the country – provides a good example for how it can be done. The company’s coronavirus taskforce has been meeting regularly since late January, when a Chinese employee infected a colleague who works at company headquarters.
The company quickly drew up lists of all employees who had come into contact with the Chinese employee and with Germany’s Patient Zero. A testing room was set up where health authorities could take swabs from all those on the lists.
Even before the infection chain was broken at the company, the taskforce had assembled a handbook, which they then shared with other companies via the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA). “Essentially, our prevention strategy still follows this same pattern,” says Webasto CEO Holger Engelmann. As soon as a case is found among the company’s 14,000 employees around the world, his or her contacts are immediately identified.
The most recent taskforce meeting took place last Wednesday. Its focus was on how to deal with people returning from vacation. Webasto opted for stringent measures, requiring those who had traveled to risk areas to either provide a negative test result or work from home. “We are continuing to remain true to our cautious strategy,” Engelmann says.
“Hemming and Hawing”
By contrast, consistency is not a feature that has been displayed by politicians in Berlin. It still seems as though decisions are rather haphazard and largely dependent on the direction the current political winds are blowing. There doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive plan for a second wave.
“I find this hemming and hawing from (Health Minister) Spahn to be unacceptable,” says Thuringia Governor Bodo Ramelow. “The back-and-forth only serves to unsettle the populace.” Yet the state capitals also haven’t produced any strategies that go beyond the next couple of weeks.
The applecart of apathy has only really been upset by SPD health expert Lauterbach, who believes stubborn adherence to the instruments currently in place is negligent and is demanding that health authorities radically change course. Instead of tracing all the contacts of each individual infected person, he believes health authorities should concentrate on so-called super-spreaders. In contrast to the study from Vienna, he believes that banning large events is crucial.
Nobody knows the entire truth about the novel coronavirus. But there have been mistakes and oversights that can hardly be excused. One example is the Corona-Warn-App, that has been downloaded by 16 million people. In comments to the Committee on Internal Affairs in German parliament, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said in June that he was “quite satisfied” with the app, calling it a “great achievement” from the developers at SAP and Telekom and from ministry employees. But is that true?
Just over a week ago, though, Spahn released a joint statement with the app developers admitting that “the app doesn’t work on all mobile devices without limitations.” In order to ensure receipt of all current warnings, Telekom and SAP recommend “opening the app once a day to be on the safe side.”
A lot, in other words, is being expected of the users: They must voluntarily download it, they must check it each day, and should they become infected, they must report the positive test result within the app, which isn’t very easy. Many of those who have tested positive still have to call a “verification hotline,” where they have to answer a series of questions to prove that they did indeed test positive and aren’t just trolls. The hotline registers between 700 and 2,500 calls per day.
The hotline is necessary because not all test laboratories are digitally connected and many medical practices, health agencies and labs don’t have the necessary documentation. Those app users who want to skip the hotline, after all, need a form that includes a QR-code in order to register their positive test within the app. Indeed, thanks to the app, two new forms have been introduced to the world of bureaucracy – the 10C for practices and the OEGD for government agencies. Unfortunately, some printing offices have been unable to keep up with demand and deliveries have been slow as well.
And then there is the question as to what the German chancellor is actually up to these days. It is known that she is currently on vacation, but even before she left, she had begun keeping a low profile when it comes to managing the pandemic. Though she was quite active in the early days of the crisis, Merkel seemed to take a significant step back once several governors began expressing criticism of the rigorous course she had charted.
Most recently, she has only seemed to be interested in the European aspects of the crisis. She has largely left domestic policy to others and has stopped holding conferences with state governors. The corona cabinet, a group of select ministers that used to meet twice a week under her leadership, is no longer holding meetings, though it may resume sessions following the summer break.
And that could be an important signal to the country when it comes to corona policy. After all, the study from Vienna clearly highlighted one of the most important weapons in the coronavirus toolbox: communication.