Switzerland faces looming lack of hospital beds as coronavirus death toll rises

Swiss officials have warned the country was facing a shortage of tests for the new coronavirus, and said intensive care units were overflowing in the southern Ticino region. The death toll in the country has risen to 43.

Switzerland faces looming lack of hospital beds as coronavirus death toll rises
An ambulance leaves the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) on March 18. AFP

Switzerland has now registered some 4,800 cases of COVID-19, including 43 deaths, the authorities said Friday, making the small Alpine country of 8.5 million people one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic compared to its population size.

The country has been trying to ramp up its testing, but Daniel Koch from the Swiss federal office of public health warned the supply was running out.

“There has been an increase in the number of tests in recent days that has pushed Switzerland's test supply to the limit,” he told reporters, saying there was a need for now to reserve testing for the most serious cases.

He said Switzerland was trying to procure more tests, but it was difficult since “the entire world is currently searching for tests”.

The canton of Ticino, which borders hard-hit northern Italy, has been heavily impacted by the outbreak, counting more than 200 cases.

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset warned at a press conference that the region's hospitals were “reaching the limits of their capacity”.

Koch said the situation in Ticino was “dramatic”.

He suggested in an interview with the Swiss public broadcaster that if significant measures were not taken quickly, the canton could run out of intensive care beds by Monday.

Across Switzerland, he said that only around 160 intensive care beds out of 800 remained free, as demand soars.

Swiss authorities also described the impact of some of the dramatic measures introduced last Friday, including banning public gatherings and closing schools, restaurants, bars and most shops, to rein in the spread of the virus.

Amid new tight border restrictions, around 11,000 people had been rejected entry to the non-EU country in recent days, Christian Bock, the head of the Swiss customs service, told reporters.

Switzerland's economy is expected to suffer a heavy blow, with a group of experts with the economic affairs ministry on Thursday anticipating a contraction of 1.5 percent this year.

In December, the experts had forecasted that the Swiss economy would grow 1.3 percent in 2020.

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Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I’m abroad?

Given how expensive health insurance premiums are in Switzerland, you may be tempted to suspend your policy while you are abroad. Is this possible?

Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I'm abroad?

Unlike the obligatory car insurance, which you can suspend temporarily by depositing your registration plates at the local motor vehicles office, rules pertaining to health insurance are much stricter.

As the Federal Office of Public Health explains it, “If you leave the country for a certain period to travel or study but do not take up residence abroad, you are still required to have [health] insurance in Switzerland”.

In other words, as long as you are a registered resident of Switzerland, regardless of your nationality or passport, you must keep your compulsory Swiss health insurance and pay your premiums. While you do this, you also remain covered against most medical emergencies while you travel.

However, rules are less stringent for supplemental health plans which can, in some cases, be put on hold, depending on the insurance provider, according to Switzerland’s Moneyland consumer website.

The only exception allowed for suspending the health insurance coverage is during a military or civil protection service which lasts more than 60 consecutive days.

“During these periods, the risks of illness and accident are covered by military insurance. Your health insurance provider will refund your premiums”, according to FOPH.

Under what circumstances can you cancel your Swiss health insurance?

Swiss law says you can cancel your insurance if you are moving abroad, either permanently for for a period exceeding three months.

If you do so, only claims for treatments given while you still lived in Switzerland will be paid by your insurance; any medical bills for treatment incurred after you officially leave will be denied.

These are the procedures for cancelling your compulsory health insurance if you leave the country under conditions mentioned above

To announce your departure abroad, you must send your insurance carrier a letter including your name, customer number or AVS/AHV number.

You must also include a certificate from your place of residence in Switzerland confirming that you have de-registered from your current address, as well as the date of your departure.

Note, however, that if your new destination is another Swiss community / canton, rather than a foreign country, your insurance can only be cancelled from the following calendar year and only if you present proof of having taken up a new policy with another company.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to register your address in Switzerland

You can find out more information about this process here

If you suspend your health insurance for less than six years, you can reactivate it at a later date with the same company when you return to Switzerland.

READ MORE : What you should know about your Swiss health insurance before you go abroad