It wasn't long ago that the third wave of the coronavirus was peaking in Germany. That was April 26, when the nationwide incidence reached 169. The wave had been driven primarily by the B.1.1.7 mutant, which is known today as the Alpha variant. The incidence fell to 4.9 by early July, and it looked as though something close to a normal summer might be possible. But for the past three weeks, the incidence has been rising again, and a fourth wave now seems likely. The head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany's center for disease control, believes it has already begun.
The question now is how bad it will be. On the one hand, over 61 percent of Germans have been given at least their first dose of vaccine. On the other, the Delta variant is more contagious and aggressive.
One is left wondering what the appropriate response is: calm or deep alarm?
Virologists first detected the Delta variant in samples taken from the Indian state of Maharashtra last October. It has since been detected in at least 124 countries; in Germany, it recently accounted for almost 91 percent of infections, with that share rising.
Virologists suspect a significantly higher viral load in those infected with the Delta variant. According to one pre-published study from Canada, the severity of COVID-19 also appears to be higher with Delta than with earlier variants. Among patients, the study found, the risk of being hospitalized increased by 120 percent, and the risk of being admitted to the intensive care unit increased by 287 percent. The risk of death has more than doubled.
Fortunately, other assessments by the British health authorities sound less dramatic: They found that there is apparently an increased risk of having to go to hospital with a Delta infection compared to the Alpha infection, but this cannot be assessed with certainty.
The United Kingdom went forward with "Freedom Day," the date marking the end of all Corona measures, despite the Delta variant, and case numbers have been falling for about a week now, anyway.
So, is calmness called for? Or should we be ringing the alarm bells?
In Germany, the incidence of infection is still at a comparatively low level, but German Health Minister Jens Spahn of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party has warned that without countermeasures, the incidences could rise to as high as 400 in September and 800 in October. He has said that we, as a society, need to ask ourselves the question: "Are we going to let that happen?"
Careless behavior fueled the pandemic last summer, and the coming weeks will determine whether the Delta variant gains dominance over our everyday lives or whether we succeed in containing its spread.
Given that no one really knows what's coming, everyone has a different idea of how best to deal with the Delta variant. German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) has ruled out a further lockdown so long as there are no signs the hospitals are getting overloaded. The RKI is calling for the infection rate to be kept low at all costs. Health Minister Spahn, on the other hand, is arguing that an incidence value of 200 is "the new 50." In other words, he believes things won't get critical before that.
At any rate, most politicians want to avoid being accused of repeating the mistakes of last year, when they recklessly waited to institute containment measures, paving the way for a second wave that was worse than the first. The governors of Germany's 16 states have now decided to hold a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel on August 10. The meeting had originally been planned for the end of the month. "The elbow room for us to still effectively counteract current developments is narrowing," says Berlin Mayor Michael Müller of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
The expected focus of the meeting will be Germany’s stalled vaccination campaign and how best to deal with people who have not yet been given the jab. This issue is particularly problematic given that the vaccines authorized for use in Germany offer a high level of protection against the Delta variant.
Fully vaccinated people can still get infected. RKI reported around 7,200 breakthrough infections in Germany as of Thursday. Among those breakthrough infections, vaccinated elderly people who suffer from underlying conditions were apparently those who became seriously ill.
But there is some good news: In the UK alone, vaccination is estimated to have prevented more than 11 million infections and 36,900 deaths through early July.
The question of how children and young people are to be protected also remains open in Germany: In Bavaria, mobile vaccination teams are visiting schools to provide vaccine shots for 12- to 15-year-olds, and the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein plans to follow suit soon. But the city-state of Hamburg, for example, isn't offering mobile vaccinations for students, and appointments at vaccination centers are only available to those aged 16 or older.
The German federal government has also ruled out a national vaccination requirement for fear of dividing German society and triggering protests like those seen in France. A debate has emerged, however, about requiring people to pay for the coronavirus rapid tests required for unvaccinated people if they want to engage in several activities, including travel and indoor dining. Those tests are currently paid for by the government. There is also discussion of providing more rights to people who have been vaccinated.
Most importantly, people returning from trips abroad will soon have to adhere to additional rules. The move is coming quite late, given that the summer school holidays are already ending in some German states, and it is doubtful the measures will be all that effective.
Spahn first proposed tightening entry regulations for people returning from international trips two weeks ago. Spahn called for a requirement that every person entering Germany – except for those who have been vaccinated or can prove they have contracted and recovered from COVID-19 – present a current negative coronavirus test. The idea is to prevent vacationers from continuing to bring the virus back into the country as they return home.
The testing requirement had previously only applied to airline passengers and people entering the country from areas with high infection levels (high incidence). Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the CDU supported the idea, while Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht of the SPD, which is the junior partner in the coalition government, initially expressed opposition. But nothing happened.
Then, on Tuesday, Markus Söder – the head of the Christian Social Union, the CDU's Bavarian sister party – said the new rules would apply from Sunday, August 1 and that he had been promised as much by the federal government. Many state leaders support the proposal, and chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party considers mandatory testing for all travelers "absolutely necessary."
Passengers at the Berlin airport: The authorities in Germany want to create the impression that they have a close eye on returning travelers and their adherence to the coronavirus rules.Foto: Stefanie Loos / AFP
But the federal government's discussions were still ongoing at that point, and it's likely members felt pressure from the CSU in Bavaria.
On Wednesday evening, Spahn's ministry sent a draft of the stricter entry regulation to the other ministries. The new rules were approved by Merkel's cabinet on Friday afternoon, but the move could hardly have been any more hectic.
And the rule will be difficult to enforce. Who is going to monitor whether travelers go into quarantine? And how?
Since the beginning of the year, Federal Police have discovered thousands of violations of the policies aimed at containing the coronavirus as people re-entered Germany. And this, even though officials at airports only randomly check whether travelers have registered before entering the country, and whether they have tested negative or been fully vaccinated – tasks that are actually supposed to be carried out by the airlines. The carriers have been repeatedly criticized for not doing a serious enough job of fulfilling that responsibility.
It's highly unlikely the situation will change in the future or that Germany will be able to implement blanket checks and controls on roads at border crossings.
To do that, the government would have to know who is returning to the country in the first place. Andreas Rosskopf, head of the GdP union representing staff of the Federal Police, believes that any such attempt would fail: "It is illusory that we can determine who is entering our land borders. It's not possible for us to do anything more than spot checks." The infrastructure for border controls largely disappeared with the open internal EU borders implemented under the Schengen agreement, he says.
"We have 3,800 kilometers (2,361 miles) of external border, and even if you wanted to control only the vehicle traffic from the Netherlands or people returning from Spain at the German-French border, it would be impossible to do it in any blanket manner,” Rosskopf says.
Besides, what would that achieve? As one senior officer with the federal police says: "The time and effort at the border is only justifiable if it is certain that a misdemeanor charge by the Federal Police will be prosecuted at the end of the chain."
This, in turn, would ultimately be the responsibility of the public health department where the person in question lives. Health officials would have to slap fines against, for example, an unvaccinated person who drove back into the country from a high-risk area without presenting a negative test. "But the health departments can't even keep up with that," says the Federal Police officer. He says that checks conducted on people who are supposed to be in quarantine are also insufficient. Many people who are supposed to be in quarantine are called by the offices, he says, but that's not enough. "If you know you're creating regulations that can't be enforced, then what's the point?"
As such, public health departments may be overburdened in the near term, even with incidences much lower than those in the second and third waves.
If the numbers continue to rise, Walczok also sees a new debate arising in the autumn, at the latest, over whether public health departments should even continue trying to track all cases.
He notes that younger people, of whom few have been vaccinated, are less likely to get seriously ill and require hospitalization. For him, that raises the question of whether the health authorities should instead concentrate on cases in which an infected person has had contact with older, unvaccinated persons. "A lot of public health departments would really welcome that," Walczok says.
School starts again in Hamburg next week, and the city already has the highest incidence of any state in Germany. Last Monday alone, 9,000 vacationers returned from risk areas, and it's possible that many brought the Delta variant back with them. The social authorities in the city-state believe that around half of the new infections in Hamburg have been brought back by people returning home from abroad.
As a precaution, the city government has grown the central support unit for public health departments, which tracks contacts and checks for quarantine compliance, to a staff of more than 200. The week before last, 70 percent of Hamburg residents who returned from vacations in a high-risk area received a call. The idea is for returnees to have the feeling the authorities have their eye on them.
And that if they don't follow the rules, it could get expensive. Anyone caught entering Hamburg from a risk area without having registered online can be forced to pay a fine of 300 euros ($356). In North Rhine-Westphalia, anyone who fails to comply with the quarantine requirement can face a fine of up to 10,000 euros. And a returnee who goes to work even though he or she should have been in quarantine faces a maximum fine of 25,000 euros.
But is the threat of financial penalties enough?
In Lower Saxony, it is indoor celebrations, and not travelers, that are the main problem. In the Hannover region, authorities have attributed 140 infections to parties since the beginning of July, and around 3,000 people have been forced into quarantine by public health departments.
Last weekend, police moved in to conduct raids in the city's popular Steintor nightlife district: The bars and nightclubs there were overfilled with guests. Masks? None. People also hadn’t recorded their contact data with the establishments in case of an outbreak. Of 100 visitors at a club, police could only determine that contact information had been registered for six people.
This is one of the reasons an amended corona ordinance came into force in Lower Saxony on Wednesday: Hookah lounges, clubs and nightclubs in the state are now required to close again if the incidence exceeds 10. As of Thursday, this affected 27 of 45 districts and incorporated cities.
Experience in the Netherlands has shown that such measures can be effective. After a rapid increase in the number of cases in the high-incidence region, large events without fixed seating and festivals were banned, and clubs and discos had to close. About a week later, the infection curve began to flatten significantly, and is now falling.
Lower Saxony borders the Netherlands, and state Health Minister Daniela Behrens of the SPD says border controls are already only sporadically possible. "We have no choice but to rely on the personal responsibility of those returning from their travels."
Nonetheless, the federal government has expanded the number of spot checks it is conducting of vehicles near the border areas.
With its new regulation, the German government also wants to simplify the system for controls: It wants to reduce the number of categories to just high-risk areas and virus variant areas. Currently, there is also a simple risk area.
But if there are hardly any checks, anyway, will that really make much of a difference?