ESCHWEILER – As Germany inches toward the mark of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, the country's leader-in-waiting announced plans Wednesday to create an expert team at the heart of the next government to provide daily scientific advice on tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats announced the measure, along with the creation of a standing emergency committee, at the start of a news conference laying out the deal his party and two others have agreed to form a new government.
“Sadly, the coronavirus still hasn't been beaten,” Scholz said. “Every day we see new records as far as the number of infections are concerned.”
German officials — from outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel to state governors and the three parties now poised for power — have been criticized for failing to take decisive steps to flatten the curve of infections during the transition period since September's nation election.
Doctors and virologists have been warning for months that Germany faces a surge in new cases that could overwhelm its health care system, even as senior politicians politicians dangled the prospect of further lifting pandemic restrictions.
"Nobody had the guts to take the lead and announce unpopular measures,” said Uwe Janssens, who heads the intensive care department at the St. Antonius hospital in Eschweiler, west of Cologne.
“This lack of leadership is the reason we are here now,” he said.
Doctors like Janssens are bracing for an influx of coronavirus patients as confirmed cases hit fresh daily highs that experts say is also being fueled by vaccine skeptics.
Resistance to getting the shot — including the one developed by German company BioNTech together with U.S. partner Pfizer — remains strong among a sizeable minority of the country. Vaccination rates have stalled at 68% of the population, far short of the 75% or higher that the government had aimed for.
“We’ve increasingly got younger people in intensive care,” said Janssens. "The amount of time they’re treated is significantly longer and it blocks intensive care beds for a longer period.”
Older people who got vaccinated early in 2021 are also seeing their immunity wear off, making them vulnerable to serious illness again, he said. Echoing problems seen during the initial vaccine rollout, authorities have struggled to meet demand for boosters even as they tried to encourage holdouts to get their first shot.
Some German politicians are suggesting it's time to consider a vaccine mandate, either for specific professions or for the population as a whole. Austria took that step last week, announcing COVID-19 shots will become compulsory for all starting in February after seeing a similar reluctance to get vaccinated fuel fresh outbreaks and hospitalizations.
Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel said in June that she didn’t favor such a measure.
Scholz, who is currently finance minister under Merkel, had initially refused to be drawn on whether he would back compulsory COVID-19 shots.
But speaking alongside the leaders of the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, Scholz said Wednesday that the new government will require staff in care homes to get vaccinated. He said an expansion of the measure could be considered, without elaborating.
A fund of 1 billion euros ($1.12 billion) will also be established to provide bonus payments to carers in hospitals and nursing homes, he said
The three parties recently used their parliamentary majority to pass a law that replaces the existing legal foundations for pandemic restrictions with narrower measures, starting Wednesday. These include a requirement for workers to provide their employers with proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test. The change was criticized by Merkel's center-right Union bloc as making it harder for Germany’s 16 governors to impose hard lockdowns.
Merkel's spokesman acknowledged Wednesday that “there are many experts who doubt that what's been decided so far, as sensible and important as it is, will be enough to slow the wave (of infections).”
Germany's disease control agency on reported a record 66,884 newly confirmed cases Wednesday, and 335 deaths. The total death toll from COVID-19 stood at 99,768 since the start of the pandemic, the Robert Koch Institute said. German weekly Die Zeit, which conducts its own count based on local health authority figures, said the 100,000 threshold had already been passed.
Meanwhile, health authorities in five eastern states and Bavaria have activated an emergency system to coordinate the distribution of 80 seriously ill patients to other parts of the country. Earlier this month, two patients were taken from southern Germany to Italy for treatment, a significant change from last year, when Italian patients were being sent to German hospitals.
Germany boasted almost four times as many intensive care beds per capita as Italy had then, a factor that experts say was key to the low German death toll at the time.
Since January, Germany has had to cut its ICU capacity by 4,000 beds due to lack of staff, many of whom have quit because of the pressure they endured earlier in the pandemic.
“It’s hard for people to cope with this, physically and psychologically,” Janssens said of the situation doctors and nurses face in the coming months.
“We'll survive, somehow,” he added.
The World Health Organization’s European office warned this week that availability of hospital beds will again decide how well the region copes with the expected rise in cases over the coming months — along with vaccination rates.
Based on current trends, Europe could see another 700,000 deaths reported across the 53-nation region by next spring, with 49 countries expected to see “high or extreme stress in intensive care units,” the agency said Tuesday.
Frank Jordans reported from Berlin.