The number of coronavirus infections is increasing in Germany, and worries are growing that it will spike even higher once people move their lives back indoors in the coming months. With levels different in each state, there is disagreement over a common national response.
By Matthias Bartsch, Sven Becker, Markus Feldenkirchen, Silke Fokken, Florian Gathmann, Veronika Hackenbroch, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Veit Medick, Martin U. Müller, Lydia Rosenfelder, Cornelia Schmergal, Ansgar Siemens und Gerald Traufetter
There have always been people who could celebrate carnival for several months and then chat about it for the rest of the year to tide them over until the Mardi Gras festivities begin again. They live in the Rhineland and in southern Germany, where carnival traditions are strong. There’s less enthusiasm for the celebrations in northern Germany, where the tradition isn’t widespread.
But the coronavirus this year has ensured that issues like carnival celebrations are being discussed all across the country. The pandemic got its first major foothold in Germany in February, courtesy of a local carnival party in the Heinsberg district in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Now, there’s already talk of the upcoming carnival season because it is scheduled to begin on Nov. 11, and, with the cooler autumn weather, many of its parties are held indoors.
People also typically drink copious amounts of beer at the parties. And after a few drinks, people often begin to ignore social distancing. German Health Minister Jens Spahn even went to the Münsterland area in the state to discuss the problem with restaurant and bar owners. Ultimately, he recommended that this year’s upcoming carnival, which culminates with millions of attendees at mass parades on Shrove Monday, be cancelled. Given the popularity of carnival in Germany, the recommendation wasn’t particularly well-received. It would be the second cancellation of a major event adored by millions of Germans, following Munich’s internationally beloved Oktoberfest, which will not take place this year.
The debate over the correct policies for containing the coronavirus is heating up again in Germany. After the federal and state governments demonstrated poor preparedness for the risks that came with this summer’s vacation season, they will have to do a better job in the fall. Germany’s plan to provide coronavirus testing for people returning from summer vacations in other countries was introduced too late and ultimately ended in chaos, particularly in Bavaria. Once the temperatures start to drop as fall begins, celebrations held inside are likely to pose a considerable risk.
The situation is getting increasingly tense right now. Last Thursday saw the highest number of daily coronavirus infections seen since the end of April, a total repeated on Saturday. “The number of cases is still such that the health system can cope with it,” said Spahn. “What is worrying are the dynamics.”
Some state governors – Malu Dreyer (of the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD) from Rhineland-Palatinate and Tobias Hans (of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, or CDU) from Saarland, for example – called for a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel that is now set to be held on Thursday.
But that kind of meeting only really makes sense if it can deliver results and not just squabbling. It’s also an open question whether it can succeed given that the rates of infection vary so much between the different states. In the eastern state of Thuringia, which has so far escaped relatively unscathed, politicians are calling for a further loosening of coronavirus measures – a step that Hans can’t imagine taking in Saarland, where the rate of infection is relatively high. “We must continue to be vigilant and observe basic rules of social distancing and hygiene in our daily lives,” concurs Dreyer in neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate.
There are five corona-related issues that are heading up the list of concerns for politicians in Germany as summer holidays come to an end and school begins.
Here’s an overview:
It’s not only carnival that Health Minister Spahn has in his sights, but also all larger events and family celebrations where corona rules are quickly forgotten after a few beers. In recent days, he has been warning that celebrations with 150 guests could become spreader events. In his youth, Spahn waited enough tables at weddings to know what he’s talking about.
He’s not interested in a blanket policy. Other events are different. His ministry believes that different numbers of people could be conceivable at Germany’s famous annual Christmas markets than at carnival parties and that the venue and the character of the event are the decisive factors. Spahn says he wants to share his ideas with state leaders.
So far, the maximum number of participants allowed at events is an issue that has been decided by the individual states. Bavaria only permits a maximum of 100 guests at private celebrations in indoor spaces, whereas Brandenburg allows up to 1,000. Dreyer has called for the different states to get as close as possible in harmonizing their policies.
In a conference call of the Health Committee in the federal parliament last week, Spahn pleaded for the cancellation of the entire carnival season this year. “I simply cannot imagine carnival this winter, in the middle of the pandemic,” he said, according to other participants in attendance.
Spahn hails from North Rhine-Westphalia, where many of the main carnival celebrations take place in cities like Cologne and Düsseldorf, and his comments didn’t go over well with the state chapter of his party. State Health Minister Karl-Josef Laumann, likewise of the CDU, believes Spahn is premature with his appeal. He first wants to wait and see what impact people returning from vacation and the start of the school year has on the infection rate.
Laumann also doesn’t think much of stricter guidelines for family celebrations. He says he doesn’t believe the state should be extending its authority into people’s living rooms. “I don’t see the need,” he says.
There has also been resistance in other states. “We shouldn’t operate on a basis of fear again,” says Bodo Ramelow, the state governor of Thuringia with the Left Party. “That doesn’t really help. It’s even dangerous in my opinion. I think it’s totally wrong for carnival to be cancelled everywhere. I want to find ways to make carnival possible for Thuringia. We will have to find a strategy together with carnival organizers to allow us to celebrate and not cancel everything from the get-go out of fear of the apocalypse.”
The recent testing disaster in Bavaria is even bigger than previously thought. State Governor Markus Söder of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the conservative sister party of Merkel’s CDU, boldly announced mass testing for people returning to the state from vacations at autobahn and airport sites. But not all those who have tested positive have been informed.
DER SPIEGEL has also uncovered an additional problem at the Munich Airport. Some airlines have been trying to figure out for several days what to do with so-called “exit cards” that passengers from risk areas have to fill out on the plane and are intended for the health authorities. They can be used to determine what seat a passenger was sitting in, whether they have obeyed the quarantine requirement and whether they were tested for the coronavirus.
One major airline confirmed that it has tried several times to find out from the responsible State Office for Health and Food Safety what exactly should be done with exit cards after landing in Munich. In vain.
The airline says calls and e-mails have gone unanswered. According to an industry source, the problem still hadn’t been clarified by the middle of last week. The authority didn’t respond to a request for comment from DER SPIEGEL and nor did the Bavarian State Ministry of Health and Care. A spokesman for the Munich Airport says it is unaware of the facts relating to the situation and suggested contacting the two government agencies. At this point, it remains unclear just who is taking care of important passenger data.
In Munich, thousands of exit cards from Lufthansa or Turkish Airlines are likely to have been left lying around. And without the cards, it’s not possible to determine if people illegally skipped getting tested for the coronavirus after landing.
Another problem is the different rules for the tests. Bärbel Bas, a health policy expert and the deputy chair of the Social Democrats’ party group in parliament, says, “The way testing is being done in Germany has become very confusing. Different rules seem to apply in each state and each health department. It’s difficult to identify a strategy any longer. Can a child with the sniffles go to daycare? Does the child have to stay home or does it have to present the results of a test?”
Nurses can’t get tested until the health department orders the test, but those returning from a trip can easily get tested at the airport. She says that testing capacities are limited and that the priority should be placed on schools and medical staff. “The federal government, the states and the chancellor need to sit down together and decide on a uniform testing strategy,” Bas says.
On Friday evening last week at 6:33 p.m., the Bavarian State Office of Health sent a “product warning” to several authorities and ministries in the state, including health and judicial agencies. It was about the “precautionary barring” of protective masks that the state had procured for medical practices and the Technical Relief Agency (THW), among others.
In the e-mail, an employee at the state’s central warehouse for pandemic supplies informed people that the use of masks from six Chinese manufacturers would be blocked until further notice “due to missing certificates.” In question were Chinese KN95 masks, which are roughly equivalent to the higher-quality FFP2 respirator masks. Products from another Asian manufacturer was also investigated for the State Office of Health. The investigation found that, “The test samples didn’t meet the requirements in every respect.” The authorities stopped further distribution and warned against using the masks that had already been distributed.
For now, the masks will not be destroyed. They will instead be kept as “evidence” in “legal proceedings” that have been filed.
The supplier of the masks is a company called F&E Protective in the city of Passau. The company’s head, Michael Bogner, stepped in to help the state with assistance from German Transportation Minister Andreas Scheuer of the CSU. The two knew each other from Scheuer’s constituency in the state. But in its reporting, DER SPIEGEL brought to light the fact that 11 million masks intended for the federal government turned out to be “junk,” as Bogner admitted in April. He says this led to delayed deliveries.
Now, he has been forced to admit that there have also been problems with the goods that were intended for the Bavarian state government. After a partial delivery, it was determined that the masks “couldn’t be closed 100 percent at the chin.” “Of course” the company would take back the delivery, he said.
A spokesman for the Bavarian Health Ministry explained events as such: The state ordered a total of 3 million respirator masks from F&E Protective, and they were delivered in May. The “required certificate” had not been included in the final partial shipment of 14,000 masks, the ministry said. This prompted the State Health Office to “arrange for the masks to be tested by a testing laboratory.” The tests found that the masks didn’t meet the requirements. The ministry left open the question of whether the millions of masks that had previously been delivered by the Passau company might have had any defects.
Of course, that won’t increase trust in masks, which have become an important symbol in German policies aimed at containing the virus. Or in crisis management by Söder, who is emerging as a leading contender to run as Merkel’s successor as the conservatives’ chancellor candidate.
A week ago Tuesday, the Chancellery announced that ventilation will play a major role in the coming weeks. The Labor Ministry, which is responsible for occupational health and safety, has been ordered to review the opportunities presented by technologies for air ventilation and purification.
At the end of July, the ministry organized a workshop with experts. But participants report that the findings of the meeting had been sobering. Modern air filtration systems could contribute to reducing the aerosol problem, they found, but they would not provide a complete solution.
The Labor Ministry is now drafting recommendations for the Chancellery and other ministries. In them, they recommend increasing the frequency of maintenance on ventilation systems before the cold season begins this autumn. A federal and state program is also being discussed for the installation of modern filter systems that effectively reduce aerosols.
Ventilation is also a problem for schools. “The problem of aerosols being spread in overcrowded, poorly ventilated rooms remains completely unsolved,” says Heinz-Peter Meidinger, president of the German Teachers’ Association.
Teachers have been instructed to air out their rooms regularly to allow fresh air into the room and reduce exposure to aerosols. But how? “In many schools, for safety reasons alone, windows on the second and third floors can only be opened partially. No one knows what’s going to happen once the cold season begins if the windows can’t be left open for hours at a time. That’s when the real action starts.”
Last week, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced he would reduce quarantine times in the Netherlands from 14 to 10 days. That decision could also have ramifications for the German debate on the issue.
Currently, Germany has a 14-day quarantine rule. Anyone returning from a COVID-19 risk area and cannot produce certification of a negative test result or had close contact to an infected person has to go into “self-isolation” at home under Germany’s Infection Control Law.
But most COVID-19 victims are no longer contagious one week after the onset of symptoms. The incubation period (the time between getting infected and the start of symptoms) can sometimes last two weeks, but it is usually much shorter, only a few days. The question now is whether 14 days is the right period for quarantine.
Strictly speaking, the local health authorities determine the duration on their own. But the two-week quarantine has become the national standard since the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country’s disease control center, established it in a recommendation it issued on Jan. 22.
However, experts like prominent Berlin virologist Christian Drosten and SPD health policy expert Karl Lauterbach have been calling on RKI to reduce its recommended period of quarantine times from 14 to seven days. According to the latest findings, the longer quarantine period no longer makes sense. It would both relieve the health authorities and lead to increased acceptance of the quarantine policy by the populace.
Like Lauterbach, Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher is a Social Democrat and also studied to become a doctor. But Tschentscher strongly disagrees with him on the issue of self-isolation. “I don’t believe in relaxing the quarantine requirement,” he says. “They are medically reasoned, so that we’re on the safe side.”
But what is the safe side of the coronavirus? It’s the old problem.
RKI is currently on Tschentscher’s side. Officials there note that some studies have also found longer incubations periods, with five to 10 percent of infections occurring 14 days after the person spreading the contagion contracted it. “As such, there is still a residual risk after a quarantine period of 14 days, but the residual risk in the event of a reduction would be considerable,” RKI argues. The experts thus see “no strong argument” for deviating from the 14-day period, which is also what the World Health Organization recommends.
Chancellor Merkel and the state governors will have plenty to discuss this week. Crisis policies seemed to lack a focal point in recent weeks, with politicians on their summer recess and a lack of such meetings. They used to hold regularly scheduled meetings, but they were suspended following a sharp drop in infections. There’s a strong case for recommencing those meetings now in light of the lack of consensus on just about every question.
“I advocate a stronger role for the federal government,” says Lauterbach. He says the states regained their decision-making authority during the more pleasant phase of the easing of the lockdown. “Now that the second wave is coming, the governors are realizing that their autonomy is also borrowed time.”
Thuringia Governor Ramelow views things differently. He advocates a minimal federal role. “If there is one thing that needs to be regulated uniformly nationwide, it is the strengthening of the public health service,” he says. If we can manage joint health policies, then we would be pleased to decide on them together. But just because somebody gets nervous, doesn’t mean we all have to go into alarm mode.”
Governor Dreyer, for her part, can imagine a uniform upper limit on the number of participants at events, but not a blanket ban on the carnival festivities this winter and spring. She also favors individual state policies on this issue.
There does, however, seem to be at least one minimal consensus. “A lockdown like in March is out of the question and impermissible,” says Thuringia Governor Ramelow.