Germany faces grim COVID milestone with leadership in flux

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Image source: AP

Banking district buildings in Frankfurt, Germany.

As Germany approaches the 100,000 deaths mark from COVID-19, the country’s future leader announced plans on Wednesday to create a panel of experts at the heart of the next government to provide daily scientific advice on tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats announced the measure, as well as the creation of a standing emergency committee, at the start of a press conference in which he outlined a deal in which his party and two others agreed to form a new government.

“Unfortunately, the coronavirus has not yet been defeated,” Scholz said. “Every day we see new records for the number of infections.”

German officials – from outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel to state governors and three parties now ready for power – have been criticized for failing to take decisive steps to smooth the contagion curve in the transition period following the national elections in September.

Doctors and virologists have been warning for months that Germany is facing a rise in new cases that could overwhelm its health care system, even as senior policymakers feared further lifting of restrictions on the pandemic.

“No one had the courage to take the lead and announce unpopular measures,” said Uwe Janssens, head of the intensive care unit at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Eschweiler, west of Cologne.

“This lack of leadership is the reason we are here now,” he said.

Doctors like Janssens are gearing up for the influx of coronavirus patients as confirmed cases hit new daily highs, which experts say are also fueled by vaccine skeptics.

Injection resistance – including one developed by the German company BioNTech in conjunction with US partner Pfizer – remains strong among the country’s sizable minority. Vaccination rates have stalled for 68% of the population, well below the 75% or more the government has been pushing for.

“We have more and more young people in intensive care,” said Jansens. “The amount of time they heal is significantly longer, and this blocks intensive care beds for a longer period.”

Seniors vaccinated at the beginning of 2021 also have reduced immunity, making them vulnerable to serious illness again, he said. Echoing the concerns noted during the initial vaccine introduction, authorities have struggled to meet the demand for boosters, even as they tried to get protesters to get the first vaccine.

Some German politicians suggest that it is time to consider vaccinations, either for specific occupations or for the general population. Austria took the move last week, announcing that COVID-19 vaccinations would become mandatory for everyone starting in February, after seeing a similar reluctance to vaccinate, leading to new outbreaks and hospitalizations.

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in June that she did not support such a measure.

Scholz, who is currently Merkel’s finance minister, initially declined to talk about whether he would support mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.

But, speaking alongside pro-business leaders of green environmentalists and Free Democrats, Scholz said Wednesday that the new government will require vaccinations for nursing home workers. He said one could consider expanding the measure without going into details.

A € 1 billion ($ 1.12 billion) fund will also be set up to pay bonuses to caregivers in hospitals and nursing homes, he said.

Three parties recently used their parliamentary majority to pass legislation that, starting Wednesday, replaces the existing legal framework for limiting the pandemic with narrower measures. This includes requiring workers to provide their employers with proof of vaccination, recovery, or test negative. Merkel’s center-right allied bloc criticized the change for making it harder for Germany’s 16 governors to impose tough restrictions.

A Merkel spokesman admitted on Wednesday that “there are many experts who doubt that what has been adopted so far, however reasonable and important, will be enough to slow the wave (of infections).”

Germany’s Disease Control Agency reported a record 66,884 new confirmed cases on Wednesday and 335 deaths. The total death toll from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic is 99,768, according to the Robert Koch Institute. The German weekly Die Zeit, which makes its own estimate based on data from local health authorities, said the 100,000 threshold had already been passed.

Meanwhile, health authorities in the five eastern states and Bavaria have activated an emergency system to coordinate the delivery of 80 critically ill patients to other parts of the country. Earlier this month, two patients were flown from southern Germany to Italy for treatment, a significant change from last year when Italian patients were sent to German hospitals.

Germany boasted nearly four times more intensive care beds per capita than Italy at the time, a factor that experts say was key to Germany’s low mortality rate at the time.

Since January, Germany has had to cut the number of its intensive care units by 4,000 beds due to staff shortages, many of whom have dropped out due to the pressure they endured at the start of the pandemic.

“It’s hard for people to deal with it physically and mentally,” Janssens said of the situation that doctors and nurses will face in the coming months.

“We will somehow survive,” he added.

The World Health Organization’s European office warned this week that hospital bed availability will again determine how well the region will cope with expected increases in incidence in the coming months – along with vaccination rates.

Based on current trends, another 700,000 deaths in the region from 53 countries could be recorded in Europe by next spring, with 49 countries anticipating “high or extreme stress in intensive care units,” the agency said on Tuesday.

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