Why Switzerland’s autumn infection spike is ‘not yet a second wave’

Why Switzerland's autumn infection spike is 'not yet a second wave'
Swiss MP Regula Rytz (L) speaks with MP Benjamin Roduit b during the autumn session of the Swiss Parliament. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
Switzerland is currently experiencing its highest number of new coronavirus infections since April. Experts however say the two periods cannot be compared.

Daily coronavirus cases in Switzerland jumped over the 1,000 mark on Wednesday, October 7th, for the first time since April 1st. 

Recorded infections in the wealthy Alpine nation of 8.5 million people only previously topped 1,000 between March 16 and April 1, at the height of its Covid-19 outbreak.

Faced with the recent jump in case numbers, Health Minister Alain Berset on Tuesday urged the Swiss to “get a grip” by respecting physical distancing and hand hygiene in private as well as in public.

Experts have however said the current situation was different to that in the Spring for a variety of reasons. 

Basel epidemiologist Marcel Salathé from the ETH Lausanne, one of Switzerland’s best known experts on the virus, said Switzerland was not experiencing a second wave. 

“No, I don't see a second wave yet. Sure, the curve rises. It is approaching the values ​​of spring. But you cannot compare these curves with one another.”

More testing

Salathé told Watson a major reason for the new numbers was an increase in testing – with far more tests being carried out now than in March and April. 

“Much less testing was done in the spring. We missed nine out of ten cases at the time,” he said. 

“We do not know how many cases remain undetected today. But there are definitely a lot less. Therefore the two situations have nothing in common.”

Local clusters rather than nationwide spread

Cantonal data shows that the increase in positive cases is due to clusters of localised outbreaks, rather than a more widespread, nationwide trend. 

Salathé told Watson that a handful of individual outbreaks can give the impression rates are spiking. 

“I assume that certain cluster effects play a role. In Zurich there were such things in the salsa scene,” he said. 

“It was foreseeable that something like this could happen. The question is more whether growth will continue in the longer term because we would then have reason to worry again.”

“Instead of a wave, I prefer to speak of fires, of local outbreaks. Switzerland is far from a situation like in Spain with long-term, exponential growth. But that doesn't mean that it can't get that far.

“So far, wherever it was believed that the situation was getting out of hand, it has been possible to slow down the spread.”

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Virus spread among non-risk groups

One major difference between now and Spring is that the virus is not spreading as extensively through risk groups. 

“At the moment, more and more young people are becoming infected in Switzerland. They have to be hospitalised less often and also die less often from the virus,” Basel epidemiologist Emma Hodcroft told 20 Minutes.

Hodcroft warned however that vulnerable groups could again be infected. 

“We have recently seen in other European countries that the transmissions have spread again to the older age groups,” she said. 

“We currently have the same viruses as in Spain or Great Britain, where the number of hospital stays is increasing. So there is no reason to assume that it will be any different here if we don't manage to bring the number of cases down. “

Hospitals still have significant capacity 

Another major difference with March and April is that hospitals and medical facilities are better prepared to handle the virus. 

While hospitals did not reach the point of overflowing as they did in Italy, in some cantons hospitals were close to full. 

The rate of hospitalisation is also lower than it was previously. 

“It is true that while the cases are there, they are not leading to more hospitalisations or deaths,” Salathé said. 

“The big question is whether it will stay that way.”

People are more aware of how the virus spreads – and how to contain it

During the initial lockdown phase, more focus was put on hand washing and surface contamination than on the possibility the virus was airborne. 

Indeed, it took Switzerland four months to put in place a mask requirement on public transport since the beginning of the outbreak. 

The requirement came into place on July 6th, well after the original outbreak. 

Now, masks are required on public transport in all 26 cantons, while around a dozen cantons have also required them in supermarkets. 

UPDATE: Everything you need to know about Switzerland's compulsory mask requirement 

Does the weather play a role? 

Salathé said the weather might be relevant, however the new outbreaks could have occurred in any weather conditions. 

“(The weather) is certainly a factor because people are more and more indoors. But it seems a bit premature to me to attribute everything to the weather alone.”

“We might as well be dealing with clusters that would have happened anyway.”


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