In mid-December 2020, Germany once again restricted public life. The light lockdown at the beginning of November, which aimed to bring down the number of coronavirus infections before Christmas, had been a total failure and the incidence soared. Thus, the federal and state governments decided to implement a second strict confinement: only five people from two different households could meet, schools began distance learning and citizens began to stockpile food.
Three years later, the virus has stopped terrorizing people, most Germans have been vaccinated and almost everyone has developed basic immunity. However, family doctors like Lars Rettstadt are once again on edge, and their phone rings 24 hours a day.
“Now it is again a typical period of high infections, there are a lot of people with coughs and runny noses. When we open the office on Monday morning, there are around 70 people waiting without an appointment, men, women, young or old. It is estimated that 80% have viral infections, half of them have coronavirus.”
“We are no longer seeing cases of more serious developments of the disease, I only had a 94-year-old patient who had to be taken to hospital because of a coronavirus infection. Many patients are currently complaining of gastrointestinal problems and headaches as side effects of the coronavirus. And many patients, also young people, have to take sick leave for two weeks because they are physically exhausted and still don’t have the strength to work.”
Almost eight million with respiratory diseases
According to the Robert Koch Institute, almost eight million people currently suffer from respiratory illnesses in Germany, which means that almost one in ten people is sick. Corporate Christmas meetings are cancelled, public bodies suspend services due to lack of employees and classes are being canceled in schools due to sick teachers.
Nearly one in four people currently hospitalized with a serious respiratory infection has been infected by the coronavirus. German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach urged caution and more vaccinations in the run-up to Christmas because of the new wave of viruses.
The 7-day incidence is currently 38 per 100,000 people, while at the peak of the omicron variant wave in the first half of 2022 it was almost 2,000. But a real assessment of the situation is no longer possible based on the incidence rate, as currently people almost never get tested in public bodies, but rather based on the analysis of sewage water.
This new early warning system covers 123 sewage treatment plants in Germany. And the amount of coronavirus genes in the sewage system is currently at its highest since measurements began in June 2022.
Frankfurt virologist Martin Stürmer cites another study that helps illuminate the true extent of the coronavirus wave. “The SentySurv study from the state of Rhineland-Palatinate regularly examines 10 thousand participants using PCR at regular intervals, regardless of whether people have symptoms or not. We currently have an incidence of almost 3,900 in 7 days in Rhineland-Palatinate, a week ago it it was at 2,600. So we are at a stage where the numbers are increasing a lot again.”
Pirola variant on the rise
The fact that a large part of Germany is currently in bed also has to do with the fact that not only the coronavirus is circulating, but also common respiratory infections such as the flu or the RSV virus. At the same time, Stürmer highlights that there has been no significant increase in the number of hospital admissions, intensive care units or even deaths from Covid.
The virologist sees a new variant on the rise. “In the last few days and weeks, we are really seeing the variants change, from Eris to the Pirola variant. The original Pirola had more than 30 mutations. Now we have the BA.2.86.1 variant in Germany, but above all the JN.1 variant , another successor variant to Pirola, which now accounts for almost a third of registrations.”
Masks and vaccines as protection
Stürmer believes the next few weeks will be challenging. He also appeals to risk groups, that is, people over 60 and with pre-existing illnesses, to get vaccinated. At the same time, vaccination also offers good protection against long-term Covid-derived illnesses, i.e. long-lasting health problems that persist for more than four weeks after infection.
“The population itself tends to say: ‘I’m definitely not going to put on a mask again’. There is a certain distance or aversion to these measures. The willingness to vaccinate is also low. But I think these are all factors that we could significantly improve with positive communication and sensible.”