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Doctors operating on a patient in a Berlin emergency room
German hospitals have grappled with short staffing for nearly three years, often forcing them to delay non-critical surgeriesImage: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

Berlin hospital halts elective surgery as flu wave bites

December 14, 2022

Charite Hospital says the decision allows it to perform emergency operations and keep pediatric staff as RSV infections rise among children. Authorities say this year's flu season has arrived earlier than in the past.


Berlin's Charite Hospital on Wednesday announced that it would cancel all elective surgeries until at least the end of the year, starting Monday.

The hospital said it "regretted the move" but that it had been made necessary due to staff shortages as a result of illness. The decision will allow doctors to "carry out critical surgeries such as tumor removal and transplants, and care for stroke and heart patients."

Beyond that, administrators said they did not want to backtrack on staff transfers to the pediatric hospital that have allowed them to battle a high number of RSV infections among children.

Flu season hits Germany with a vengeance

For the past two years, Germany has largely been spared its annual wave of influenza infections. This year, however, it has come early and is hitting hard, according to health authorities at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI).

Unseasonally high numbers of people are calling in sick from work in almost all sectors, leading to reduced public transport services in places, problems staffing schools and daycare centers, and other disruptions. 

The RKI says this year's wave began in late October rather than the turn of the year as has been the case in the past. The institute said that so far the states recording the highest number of infections are Bavaria in the south, and North Rhine-Westphalia — Germany's most populous state — in the west.

In the past, Germany's flu waves have lasted between three and four months. The RKI says it is impossible to predict the severity of this year's wave at this early point in the season.

"The number of deaths can vary greatly in individual flu waves, from several hundred to more than 25,000 in the 2017/18 season," said the RKI, noting that 5-to-20% of the population can be infected throughout the course of a flu epidemic.

Immunity after COVID

Hospitalizations due to respiratory illness already as high as previous worst seasons

The RKI also noted, "the number of hospitalizations due to severe respiratory infection is at a generally high level, comparable to peak levels in previous years."

Last week, authorities said doctors' visits related to the flu had exceeded two million.

Data suggests that most of those patients suffered from influenza, as well as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and only a small percentage of those seeking medical assistance had been infected with the coronavirus.

"Currently the situation in doctors' offices is definitely strained," said Nicola Buhlinger-Göpfarth, deputy chair of the German Association of General Practitioners, adding, "it is very concerning" that flu season has started so early.

Green Party health expert Janosch Dahmen attributes the issue to a lack of reform in Germany's health system, the "resilience" of which he claimed had been "very limited" as a result of the coronavirus.

Flu in Germany typically wreaks havoc on productivity

Beyond hospitals, this year's wave of flu infections is also disrupting most sectors of German society.

Train operators, both national and regional, have reported high worker absenteeism as a result of sickness, resulting in cancelled trains. Airlines, too, are being hit, as well as the Deutsche Post.

A representative for a trade union for teachers and educators called the situation in German preschools "barely defensible" in a newspaper guest article this week, saying mass closures might be necessary if the situation persists or worsens. Some facilities had as many as half their staff off sick, Doreen Siebernick wrote.

Traditionally, the annual flu season costs businesses across the country billions in lost production and sick pay.

Health authorities warn of 'twindemic' of COVID, flu

js/msh (AFP, dpa) 

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