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COVID: Germany calls in air force to transfer ICU patients

November 26, 2021

Health Minister Jens Spahn said that military transfers of COVID patients to quieter ICUs could be done "once, or twice, but not indefinitely." Without other steps, he said the health system could become overstretched.

The interior of a German air force Airbus A310 MedEvac plane, prepared to transport COVID ICU patients to different hospitals in Germany.
ICU patients from Bavaria will be airlifted to other, less overburdened hospitals as Germany's COVID caseload continues to hit new recordsImage: Kevin Schrief/Bundeswehr/picture alliance/dpa

Germany's caretaker health minister and the head of the government agency for disease control and prevention struck a somber tone at their weekly press briefing on Friday, a day after the country reached a total of 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths

Health Minister Jens Spahn and Lothar Wieler of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) were speaking to reporters in Berlin as the German military prepared to airlift around 100 COVID ICU patients to other hospitals with more available beds. 

"Transporting 80 or 100 patients within Germany is possible once, or perhaps twice, but not indefinitely," Spahn said. "We must stop this wave now, otherwise we'll experience exactly what we always wanted to avoid, namely an overburdening of our health care system."

Starting on Friday, the Luftwaffe air force will start transporting seriously ill COVID patients from the southern state of Bavaria to a quieter hospital in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The first Airbus A310 MedEvac was expected to land at Memmingen Airport around 2 p.m. local time (1300 GMT) and then reach Münster-Osnabrück Airport in the evening.

The military is setting aside two planes for such operations going forward. 

Entry of new B.1.1.529 variant 'the last thing we need' now

Spahn and Wieler were also asked at length about the new B.1.1.529 COVID variant identified in South Africa

The Christian Democrat outgoing health minister welcomed planned travel restrictions as a "necessary, proactive, preventive protective measure."

"That's the last thing that we need in our current situation: that another variant is inserted into this wave," Spahn said. 

Spahn also called on people who had recently returned from southern Africa, even if it was 10 or 20 days ago, "to take a test — and preferably a PCR test." 

Health expert Wieler cautioned that tests were ongoing to determine the exact characteristics of the new variant, but said that some mutations appeared to "suggest that there could be a higher rate of transmission." 

"And there are other mutations where it's not yet clear what they mean biologically. That means we really are very concerned," Wieler said.

Spike in ICU patients, delays to other operations

Certain German states, including Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria in the south, and Saxony and Thuringia in the east, currently have considerably higher caseloads than the national average, and therefore more strain on their local medical facilities. 

But nationwide, Germany has been setting new seven-day incidence records on a near-daily basis for some time now. On Friday, a new record high incidence rate of 438.2 new cases per 100,000 people per week was reported by the RKI. 

RKI director Lothar Wieler and German caretaker Health Minister Jens Spahn.
Lothar Wieler (l.) and Jens Spahn urged people to limit their contacts, keep wearing masks, and to stay home if they felt unwellImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

"Anyone who thinks this wave is only going through Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and eastern Germany, is mistaken," Health Minister Spahn warned. 

The RKI's Wieler, who started his press briefing by asking for a moment's silence for the 100,000 dead in Germany, spoke at length about the increasing number of COVID patients in ICU beds around the country

He said there were currently around 4,000 COVID patients in ICU beds nationwide, with the numbers rising sharply and 2,000 admitted in the past seven days. Around 85% of ICU patients required some form of invasive ventilation. 

"The share of COVID patients in ICU beds at 18.9%. That might sound like a small number to some. But it's every fifth bed. And I'd like to make clear, these beds are needed for all seriously ill people, not just COVID patients," Wieler said. 

He acknowledged that most ICUs still had empty beds, but warned that these vacancies were being "bought" by delaying or even canceling major operations in the worst-affected regions, "for instance tumor removals or organ transplants." 

"That means, other seriously ill patients are no longer receiving their treatment," Wieler concluded. 

Both Spahn and Wieler repeatedly appealed for people to take personal steps to limit their movements and personal contacts, with Spahn calling the current situation in Germany "dramatically serious, more serious than at any point in the pandemic." 

msh/rs (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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