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Several German states halt COVID contact tracing

December 24, 2021

German states have almost given up the contact tracing of COVID cases, a senior health official has warned. Some areas are struggling with staff shortages, and the emergence of the omicron variant isn't helping.

Screenshots of Germany's COVID warning app
Germany's COVID warning app alerts the public if they come into contact with the virusImage: Rüdiger Wölk/imago images

German health authorities are struggling to trace the contacts of COVID-19 cases amid the winter wave of the pandemic, Ute Teichert, chair of the Federal Association of Doctors in the Public Health Service has said.

In an interview published Friday with RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland (RND), Teichert said "comprehensive followup [of coronavirus cases] is almost no longer taking place at the moment."

No contact tracing in Berlin, Hamburg

In fact, several German states have completely suspended the search for contacts of infected people, including Baden-Württemberg, Berlin and Hamburg, Teichert said.

Contact tracing offices are now focusing primarily on recording the "numerous coronavirus infections," she added, amid a surge in infections in recent weeks exacerbated by the emergence of the highly-transmissible omicron variant.

"Unlike with the delta variant, health authorities must order a quarantine for omicron-infected people and their contact persons, regardless of the vaccination status."

Teichert added that a significant increase in the number of omicron cases over the next few weeks will be challenging for contact tracers.

"Many Germans believe that they do not have to be quarantined as a contact person because they are vaccinated. But that is not true," the health official warned.

High stress levels for staff

While tracing teams have received short-term support from students and the military, Teichert said there has been a "massive fluctuation" in staffing levels for nearly two years.

"We constantly have to train new people, create new works paces and provide the technology — and always only for a few weeks before everything is scaled back again. That is no solution," she said.

A German soldier makes a phone call to a person possibly infected with COVID
At times, German soldiers and students have been roped in to help with contact tracingImage: Bernd Thissen/dpa/picture-alliance

Underreporting expected over Christmas

Meanwhile, another senior health official has said Germany's infection numbers won't be accurately reflected over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Fewer test centers will remain open during the festive period, and some German states will report incomplete infection rates, due to staff leave and office closures.

Medical statistician Bertram Häussler told Die Welt newspaper that the country would sink "into ignorance" for three weeks.

Tino Sorge, health spokesman for the conservative bloc in the Bundestag, warned that "omicron does not take a Christmas break," and that lower reported daily caseloads would lull Germany into a "false sense of security."

On Friday, Germany reported 35,431 new cases and 370 new deaths, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute for disease control.

Omicron cases up 25% in a day

Omicron is now present in all 16 German states, although delta remains the dominant variant.

The number of omicron cases has risen by a quarter in a day, up 810 to 3,198.

The nationwide seven-day incidence has fallen to 265.8, compared with 280.3 the previous day. A week ago it was 331.8.

mm/fb (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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