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A fourth wave of COVID infections has seen case numbers reach record levels in Germany. The health minister has said a lockdown "can't be ruled out."
German Health Minister Jens Spahn on Friday said that the pandemic situation has worsened over the past week and it's now "more serious than last week," adding that the country is facing "a national emergency."
When asked about the possibility of imposing a new lockdown for everyone, he said: "We're in a situation where we can't rule anything out."
The comments came as Germany's upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, approved new restrictions to curb COVID, a day after the lower house passed the measures.
Spahn was talking at a press conference together with Lothar Wieler, the head of the country's infectious disease agency the Robert Koch Institute (RKI).
Wieler painted a dramatic picture of the coronavirus situation, pointing out that in over a quarter of districts nationwide, the seven-day incidence rate is above 500 new infections per 100,000 people and that many hospitals are at breaking point. "We need to turn the tide. There's really no time to lose."
Wieler also stressed the importance of vaccinations. "Vaccinations are working very, very well," he said, adding: "We need to close the vaccination gaps now."
In the past two weeks, the number of new cases has jumped by more than 60%.
On Friday, Germany recorded 52,970 daily new infections, a day after registering over 65,000 daily cases, a record since the start of the pandemic. Health officials are warning that the number is likely to at least double in the coming days.
Uwe Janssens, secretary-general of the German Society for Internal Intensive Care, told DW the numbers were "absolutely worrying."
He pointed out that patients who suffer severe disease after getting infected with the virus end up in the intensive care unit much later, "with a delay of up to 15 days."
"Currently, around 0.8% of infected people will have to be treated further in an intensive care unit during the course of an infection," he said. And if there are 50,000-60,000 new infections a day, "you can count how many people will reach the intensive care units in 7 to 10 to 12 days."
The situation is becoming "too much to handle," he stressed.
As per the new rules, the so-called hospitalization incidence will be the new benchmark for introducing tougher COVID regulations in the country.
According to that metric, if more than three inhabitants per 100,000 in a region are hospitalized with COVID, the "2G" rule will apply for all public leisure activities in a given state — referring to the shorthand in Germany for a rule that allows freedoms like access to restaurants and hotels only to those who are either vaccinated or have recovered from COVID.
The "2G+" rule will kick in when the hospitalization incidence hits a value of six per 100,000, meaning even the vaccinated and recovered people will be required to produce an additional negative COVID test result. From a value of nine, further measures such as contact restrictions are to be implemented.
At present, all German states except Hamburg, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland are above the value of three. Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia are above the value of nine.
The plans include mandatory daily testing for employees and visitors of care homes, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated or not.
They also include "3G" rules (vaccinated, recovered, or tested) requiring people to show proof of full vaccination or recovery or a valid negative COVID test result for workplaces and on public transport.
Rapid antigen tests will remain free of charge for everyone. Work from home rules would also be reinstated. Nurses, especially those working in intensive care facilities, will receive a bonus.
Germany's 16 states will be also able to retain and introduce protective measures. This includes restricting or prohibiting recreational, cultural, and sporting events, banning entry to healthcare facilities and the sale and public consumption of alcohol, and closing universities.
Measures will not include school closures, blanket travel restrictions, or mandatory vaccination.
The new rules are likely to come into force next week.
Talking to DW, German Green Party lawmaker and doctor Paula Piechotta said the country should only introduce a general lockdown as "the measure of last resort." However, Germany is already very close to this step, she added.
"If a lot of legislators and deciders don't act, a general lockdown will be necessary," Piechotta said.
Piechotta also warned of low levels of trust in vaccines in Germany and Europe.
"If we can't achieve sufficient vaccination rates on a non-mandatory basis," she said, "we have to talk about vaccine mandates, especially for people who work in vulnerable settings like nursing homes and hospitals."
Making vaccination mandatory would be less disruptive than another general lockdown, she added.
Bavaria announced on Friday that it's canceling all Christmas markets in the state.
The state government has also imposed a lockdown on all districts that have a seven-day COVID incidence rate of over 1,000 per 100,000 people.
Premier Markus Söder said there will be a "de facto lockdown" for unvaccinated people by implementing the "2G" rule across the state.
The unvaccinated will lose access to even places like hairdressers, universities or adult education centers. There will also be contact restrictions, with the unvaccinated allowed to meet with a maximum of five people from two households.
Even in areas with incidence rates lower than 1,000, there will be restrictions.
For sports and cultural events, the number of spectators will be limited to 25% of the venue's total capacity and the "2G+" rule will apply — meaning even the vaccinated and recovered people will be required to produce an additional negative COVID test result.
In retail stores, there will be a limit on the number of customers allowed inside: one customer per 10 square meters. All retail outlets and restaurants will also have to be closed by 10 p.m.
To the north of Bavaria, the eastern German state of Saxony on Friday announced widespread public restrictions to start Monday and remain in place at least until December 12 to combat a surge in COVID cases.
Christmas markets throughout the state, including one of Germany's largest in Dresden, are canceled.
Bars, nightclubs, gyms, museums and many other public venues must close. Retail stores and restaurants may remain open until 8 p.m. under the "2G" rule. Schools and daycares will remain open. Sporting events can continue, but without an audience.
There will also be a night curfew in place starting Monday from 10:00 p.m. to 6 a.m. in districts with seven-day incidence rates of 1,000 cases per 100,000 people, said Saxony's social affairs minister, Petra Köpping. There are currently two districts in Saxony with seven-day incidence rates topping 1,000/100,000.
Health officials say the COVID surge in Saxony can be attributed to the state's lagging vaccination rate, which with less than 58% of the population fully vaccinated, is the lowest in Germany.
Meanwhile, Germany's Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO) on Thursday recommended booster shots for all adults. It said the boosters should be given six months after the last vaccine shot. However, that could be shortened to five months if there is enough capacity.
The committee recommend priority for booster shots be given to the immunocompromised, people over 70, residents and caregivers at elder care homes and staff in medical facilities.
Regardless of what vaccine was given previously, mRNA vaccines should be administered as booster shots. Pregnant women after the second trimester should also receive booster shots.
Nevertheless, Germany's vaccination rate has stagnated at under 70% in recent weeks, a relatively lower vaccine take-up compared to other parts of Western Europe.
"We have to intensify vaccinations as much as possible, but above all, the boost to vaccination and unfortunately, the vaccination centers were closed, even though the development was foreseeable. Now we are chasing after things," Janssens underlined.
The latest COVID wave has put hospitals in parts of Germany under immense strain.
"In the south of Germany, in Bavaria, Saxony and Baden-Württemberg and other areas, the hospitals and even the intensive care units have such a high pressure, such a high load that in some regions there are zero free intensive care unit beds," Janssens said, adding: "So we have to postpone planned operations."
Hospitals are struggling to cope because of not only rising number of patients but also a shortage of trained personnel.
Long hours, low pay and stress during the pandemic have served to put people off a job in the health care sector.
wmr,sri/rt (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)