Germany's control of the COVID-19 pandemic has so far been relatively successful. But now more and more infected tourists are returning to the country. And schools are opening again. Is Germany prepared?
By the middle of next week, the first German states will have started the new school year. After months of distance learning at home, since school closed in March, and only occasional classroom lessons right before the summer holidays, a return to normal operations is planned.
"We all long for normality. But we are simply in a situation that is not normal," warns Susanne Johna, chairwoman of the doctors' association Marburger Bund, which says the second wave of the pandemic has already arrived in Germany, as the country sees a rising number of infections. "We are already in a second, slowly rising wave," said Johna in an interview with the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.
As long as there are no drugs to treat COVID-19, warns the doctor, this wave of infections can only be contained by distancing rules and hygiene. But that will require discipline, a discipline that is noticeably decreasing among more and more citizens. And the new rules will pose a real challenge to students as the school year begins.
There are to be designated paths inside the school building, separated areas in the playgrounds, and staggered timetables: The aim is to ensure that as few pupils as possible meet each other face to face.
This has been deemed the only way to return to regular classes because there wouldn't be enough teachers otherwise. The most populous German state, North-Rhine Westphalia, is obliging students — grade five and above — and teachers to wear face masks at all times. The other states think this goes too far: They want to make masks mandatory only outside the actual classrooms.
It is already foreseeable that infected students will also be among those returning to school. First evaluations of the recent coronavirus tests for holidaymakers returning from high-risk areas have shown that on average 2.5% tested positive. However, only around 40% of those returning home take advantage of the voluntary test offer at all. The actual rate could therefore either be lower or higher.
Health Minister Jens Spahn is working on a law to enforce mandatory testing. "We have first drafts, but we want to coordinate well with the states, because they have to implement testing at airports and train stations. Until this is in place, there will be a two-week quarantine for people entering the country from risk areas."
But fewer and fewer of those affected are abiding by the quarantine regulations. Especially since it is easy to circumvent them. For example, anyone traveling from the US to Berlin is simply handed a piece of paper at the airport asking them to report to the local health authority. Buth there is no data exchange between the entry authorities and the health authorities.
The Munich-based virologist Ulrike Protzer also warns that a test could come out negative because an infected person returning from a trip may still be in the incubation period, and could only be tested positive after three to four days. "I can only rule out infection if I do a second test within four to five days and until then I need to self-isolate," she said in an interview with public broadcaster ARD.
German authorities want to detect and contain regional virus outbreaks as quickly as possible.
The hospitals are prepared for an increasing number of COVID-19 patients, says Susanne Johna, of the Marburger Bund. Since the second wave is building up slowly, she sees no need to free up a high number of intensive care beds nationwide all at once. She says preparations can be staggered until in all intensive care capacities are available when they are needed at the peak of COVID-19 infections.
Politicians want to do everything to avoid another nationwide closure of shops and schools. They are also hoping new technology will help. The Corona Warn App, which tracks whether its user has come into contact with an infected person, has now been downloaded by 16.5 million citizens. Another app is being developed by the Robert Koch Institute to track people's body temperatures and allow scientists to identify infection clusters swiftly.
"We were able to carry out the first quantitative analyses, and the data was very much in line with what we have already done, for example, in the prediction of flu outbreaks," said Dirk Brockmann, epidemiologist at Berlin's Humboldt University and the Robert Koch Institute.
The scientist is confident that the app can help to predict coronavirus outbreaks even better. "We can now automate the detection procedure so we can have a temperature fever curve for the whole country on a daily basis," he told DW.