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With Leadership in Flux, Germany Faces Grim COVID Milestone

Germany is on the verge of passing the 100,000-death mark from COVID-19 this week, a gloomy milestone that some of its neighbors have already reached but that Western Europe’s most populated nation had hoped to avoid.

Discipline, a strong health-care system, and the introduction of numerous vaccinations, one of which was developed in-house, were all intended to prevent a winter spike like the one that plagued Germany last year.

In practice, Germans were confronted with a bewildering array of pandemic rules, lax enforcement, and a national election, all of which were followed by a protracted government transition during which senior politicians dangled the prospect of further loosening restrictions even as infection rates rose.

“No one had the courage to take the lead and announce controversial measures,” said Uwe Janssens, the director of the critical care unit at the St. Antonius hospital in Eschweiler, west of Cologne.

“We are here now because of a lack of leadership,” he explained.

As verified cases approach new daily highs, doctors like Janssens are prepared for an onslaught of coronavirus patients, which experts say is spurred in part by vaccination doubters.

A sizable proportion of the country is still opposed to getting the injection, including the one created by BioNTech in collaboration with Pfizer in the United States. Vaccination rates have plateaued at 68 percent of the population, considerably below the government’s goal of 75 percent or greater.

“We’re seeing a lot more younger patients in intensive care,” Janssens added. “They are treated for a longer length of time, and critical care beds are blocked for a longer period of time.”

Immunity is wearing off in older people who were vaccinated early in 2021, rendering them vulnerable to severe disease once again, he added. Authorities have failed to satisfy demand for booster shots, echoing challenges observed during the first vaccination launch, even as they sought to persuade holdouts to obtain their first dose.

Some German lawmakers believe that a vaccination mandate should be considered, either for certain professions or for the whole population. After witnessing a similar unwillingness to be vaccinated drive new outbreaks and hospitalizations, Austria took that step this week, declaring COVID-19 vaccinations will become mandatory for everybody starting in February.

In June, Germany’s departing Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that she opposed such a proposal. Merkel invited leaders from the three parties trying to form the next government for discussions Tuesday at the chancellery to examine the pandemic situation, signaling a possible shift in policy.

Merkel’s possible successor, center-left Social Democrat Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, has declined to say whether he supports mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.

His party, along with the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, just enacted a bill that, beginning Wednesday, would replace the present legal underpinnings for pandemic limitations with tighter limits. Workers must produce confirmation of immunization, recovery, or a negative test to their employers, among other things. However, the amendment makes it more difficult for Germany’s 16 governors to enforce strict curfews without the agreement of state legislatures.

Obtaining those majorities may be especially difficult in states with the largest number of cases. Infection rates are greater in places where the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is dominant, according to a new research. The party has fought against pandemic restrictions, and surveys suggest that, as compared to the rest of the voting population, its followers are strongly opposed to vaccination requirements.

While the AfD is unlikely to win any of Germany’s four regional elections next year, experts argue that political campaigns can divert attention away from more pressing issues such as the epidemic.

“Often, rather than unpleasant decisions, the focus is on things that will drive voting,” said Catherine Smallwood, a coronavirus expert at the World Health Organization’s European office.

“If steps and decisions are not done in a timely and… tangible manner,” Smallwood said in a recent interview, “it might contribute to the virus spreading.

“On Wednesday, Germany’s disease control office recorded a new high of 66,884 newly confirmed cases and 335 fatalities. COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 99,768 people since the outbreak began, according to the Robert Koch Institute. The 100,000 mark had already been crossed, according to German weekly Die Zeit, which performs its own count based on local health authority numbers.

Meanwhile, health officials in five eastern states and Bavaria have established an emergency mechanism to coordinate the transfer of 80 critically sick patients throughout the nation. Two patients were transferred from southern Germany to Italy for treatment earlier this month, marking a dramatic shift from last year, when Italian patients were delivered to German facilities.

Germany had nearly four times as many intensive care beds per capita than Italy had at the time, a feature that experts believe contributed to the low fatality rate in Germany at the time.

Germany has had to reduce its ICU capacity by 4,000 beds since January due to a lack of personnel, many of whom have departed because to the stress they faced early in the epidemic.

“It’s physically and mentally difficult for people to cope with this,” Janssens said of the predicament physicians and nurses would confront in the coming months.

“I’m sure we’ll make it,” he added.

The European office of the World Health Organization cautioned this week that the availability of hospital beds, as well as vaccination rates, will determine how successfully the area copes with the predicted surge in cases in the coming months.

According to current trends, another 700,000 fatalities might be reported across Europe’s 53 countries by next spring, with 49 countries predicted to suffer “high or acute stress in critical care units,” according to the WHO.

Brian Cooper
Brian Cooper
Brian Cooper is a global reporter for TheOptic, focusing on bringing insights and developments for global breaking news daily. With almost seven years of experience covering topics from all over the world, Brian strives to make sure you stay up-to-date with what's going on in the world.
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