A man receives the AstraZeneca vaccine in the state of Brandenburg, Germany, March 3 2021. Picture: REUTERS/HANNIBAL HANSCHKE
A man receives the AstraZeneca vaccine in the state of Brandenburg, Germany, March 3 2021. Picture: REUTERS/HANNIBAL HANSCHKE

Brussels — Germany’s coronavirus cases have risen by the most in two months and the contagion rate edged closer to a critical threshold, days before Chancellor Angela Merkel hosts talks to decide on the government’s lockdown strategy.

The number of new cases jumped by 28,489 in the 24 hours to Friday morning, the most since January 21, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The country’s seven-day incidence rate per 100,000 people climbed to 95.6, the highest in more than a month and close to the threshold at which Merkel and regional officials agreed to re-impose restrictions.

Under the government’s current lockdown guidelines, curbs should be reinstated if the local incidence rate rises above 100 for three consecutive days, though several cities and regions have chosen to disregard the “emergency brake” in recent days.

“We are in the third wave of the pandemic,” health minister Jens Spahn said at a news conference in Berlin. “The numbers are rising, the share of mutations is large and there are some fairly challenging weeks ahead of us,” he said, adding that there isn’t enough vaccine supply in Europe at the moment to stop the new surge.

It will take “some weeks” for the people most at risk to be fully inoculated, even if promised deliveries arrive on schedule, and only then can there be a discussion about lifting more restrictions, Spahn warned.

The surge in infections comes as Germany joins other European countries in resuming the use of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine. On Thursday, the EU’s drug regulator confirmed its view that the shot is safe and the benefits outweigh the risks.

Merkel and regional state leaders are due to meet on Monday to decide on the next steps in the fight against the pandemic. Germany’s remaining lockdown restrictions — including the closing of non-essential stores, hotels, restaurants and gyms, as well as cultural venues — are due to end on March 28.

The number of Covid-19 infections and deaths in Germany has remained stubbornly high in recent weeks and the incidence rate has steadily risen, prompting epidemiologists to say the country has entered a “third wave”. That raises the prospect of a planned cautious lifting of curbs being postponed and the current restrictions extended into April.

Karl Lauterbach, a lawmaker for the ruling Social Democrats who is a trained epidemiologist, said the recent rise in cases makes stricter curbs inevitable. “It doesn’t make any sense to wait” before imposing a harsher lockdown, Lauterbach said at the news conference alongside Spahn.

He urged Germans to avoid travel over the Easter vacation, saying it would inevitably “fire the third wave” and make it much harder to get the virus under control.

“We already are seeing exponential growth,” Lauterbach said, adding that he expects a doubling of cases within 10 to 14 days, which means that “in the middle of April we would have a nationwide incidence rate of approximately 200” and this would threaten to overwhelm ICUs in hospitals within weeks.

An increasing number of Germans would support a tightening of the lockdown, an opinion poll published on Thursday suggested. Of 1,207 people surveyed by Infratest dimap, 32% said the current curbs are not stringent enough, 12 percentage points more than at the start of March. The share that said they think the restrictions are adequate fell to 38% from 47%.



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