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As Germany struggles with its third COVID-19 wave, company doctors have said they could help accelerate the rollout of vaccination campaigns. But politicians have yet to give them the go-ahead.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Germany has been steadily on the rise since Easter. Trying to send out positive signals, Chancellor Angela Merkel has encouraged people to be patient.
"We are approaching the light at the end of the tunnel," she said after a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, stressing that the involvement of family doctors and, eventually, company medics, would help speed up the vaccination campaign.
Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, head of the conference of Germany's 16 state leaders, said the next day that the campaigns weren't progressing fast enough. "We have to talk about vaccine supplies, we have to talk about what we do with those who have been vaccinated," he said in a TV interview. "We have to talk about how we can better integrate family doctors and company doctors, to become faster."
Since the recent involvement of family doctors in the campaigns, the number of vaccinated people has gone up rapidly. On Wednesday, a new record was broken with 738,501 people receiving a shot.
Wolfgang Panter, head of Germany's company doctors' association VDBW, told German weekly magazine Der Spiegel that its members were ready to go. "We could vaccinate 5 million employees in a month," he said, explaining that there were over 10,000 company doctors in Germany. If retired company medics also got involved, the association could make a big contribution to the vaccine rollout.
Over a month ago, the VDBW complained that progress was too slow and said that company doctors could speed up the situation because they had the necessary "know-how for vaccinating large groups." It said they were not only experienced with administering flu shots to large groups, but they also had the necessary infrastructure.
Many large companies are also waiting for the green light. On Wednesday, the chemicals giant BASF launched a pilot project at its Ludwigshafen site to vaccinate its entire local staff. A February report in business daily Handelsblatt revealed that most of Germany's 30 biggest companies were already making vaccination plans. Some companies, such as carmaker Volkswagen and Bosch, have already started vaccinating staff based in other countries.
Gunnar Kilian, head of human resources at VW, said that everything was in place to be able to vaccinate up to 15,000 people each week at vaccination centers across Germany, as soon as political leaders gave the go-ahead. He said that over 100 employees had already been vaccinated as part of a pilot project at the Zwickau site in eastern Germany.
"We've expanded our testing strategy with self-testing kits, and we've introduced measures to vaccinate across the board," he said in a recent statement posted online. "In Wolfsburg alone, we can vaccinate over 8,800 people in five days."
Smaller and medium-sized companies, which make up Germany's economic backbone, could also play an important role in the country's vaccination drive.
"We would like to start vaccinating our employees with the help of our company doctors as soon as possible," said Florian Feimann, spokesman for the Meyer Werft shipyard in northwestern Germany, which has about 3,600 employees. "We have been planning this since the beginning of the year and are in talks with the relevant authorities."
Feimann said the company had already discussed its internal vaccination plan and which employees would be prioritized. However, he said this would depend on an eventual decision by lawmakers about priority groups and vaccine supplies. He said the idea was first to vaccinate employees; after that, the company would look into whether relatives and employees from partner companies could sign up for the shot.
This dependence on the lawmakers, however, remains a problem. Germany's politicians are not in agreement, whether at the federal or state level. Judging by how long it has taken to involve family doctors in the process, it's unlikely that company doctors will be vaccinating people any time soon.
These are some of the questions that still need answers: Where should companies source the vaccine? Which vaccine should they receive? Who will be responsible for distribution? Which groups should be prioritized? Should company doctors even have to prioritize?
This doesn't even take into account the question of whether there will be sufficient vaccine supplies. The European Medicines Agency has yet to approve the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, and news about potential side effects caused by the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have also dealt a blow to the vaccine drive.
The need to increase the pace of vaccination has been made all the more evident by warnings about overtaxed hospitals. On Friday, Uwe Janssens, head of internal medicine and cardiology at Saint-Antonius-Hospital Eschweiler, told DW that in some parts of Germany there are "not enough" ICU beds for hospitalized COVID-19 patients and that, "very strong measures" would be needed to bring down infections.
"At the moment, the increasing numbers here, near Cologne and overall in Germany, puts a lot of pressure on ICUs," Janssens said. "In some areas, there are only 5% to 7% free ICU beds. But that is not enough."
"For weeks and months we told them to introduce very hard measures such as a strict lockdown to try and smooth the curve and bring the curve down. Nobody listened to us." Janssens said, "irresponsible" politicians responded poorly to the crisis.
Still, he didn't place all the blame with politicians, adding, "people are very tired of following regulations, and compliance among the broader population in Germany is decreasing."
This article has been translated from German