Covid-19: Is Switzerland entering the third wave of the pandemic?

Could the rising number of infections in Switzerland signal the resurgence of coronavirus? This is what the situation is right now.

Covid-19: Is Switzerland entering the third wave of the pandemic?
Third wave of Covid infections may be coming to Switzerland. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini /AFP

After declining steadily at the end of February, sparking hopes that it will drop below 1,000 infections a day, the number of coronavirus cases jumped in the past week, exceeding 1,400 on Thursday.

Overall, from the first week of March, the number of reported infections went up by nearly 5 percent. (However, it must be noted that the number of tests also increased, by almost 4 percent).

The R-rate, which indicates how fast the virus is spreading, also jumped from below 1 to 1.07 currently. This means the daily number of cases is climbing.

“When the number of cases increases so rapidly, we can speak of a new wave”, said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Geneva.

He noted that the new outbreaks already began in the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Balkans, and then Italy. “Switzerland is likely to be the next country”, Flahault said.

READ MORE: Rising infection rates put Switzerland’s March reopening plans in jeopardy

Where are the newest hotspots?

Just like during the second wave in the fall of 2020, French-speaking cantons of western Switzerland are reporting the most cases.

While overall in Switzerland the rate of infections per 100,000 is 174,76, it exceeds 200 in Geneva (265), Vaud (269), Fribourg (217), Valais (243), Jura (210) and Neuchâtel (239)

This colour-coded map from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) shows where most cases are (darkest areas) and which regions are least affected (lightest) — that is, below 200 / 100,000.

Of the people who have tested positive between February 25th and March 10th  4,421 were found to be contaminated with one of the virus mutations. This number rose from 63 percent of all infections on February 25th to over 77 percent currently.

There is, however, some positive news as well.

While the number of infections is rising, the number of deaths and hospitalisations has dropped.

It is too early to know whether this decrease is due to vaccinations.

READ MORE: First come, first served’: How to get the vaccine sooner in Switzerland

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Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence

Swiss government has devised three contingency plans that could be implemented to fight a new outbreak. What are they?

Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence
Authorities want to prevent overcrowded hospitals if new wave comes. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Although Switzerland relaxed a number of coronavirus rules from June 26th and 28th, “the pandemic is not over”, as Health Minister Alain Berset said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Berset said Switzerland should not become complacent, with last summer a warning against feeling that the battle is won. 

He added, however, that the new wave is unlikely to be as large as the previous ones due to the country’s vaccination campaign.

This situation leaves a degree of uncertainty for which the government wants to be prepared as well as possible, Berset noted.

The Federal Council established a “just-in-case” procedure on Wednesday for three possible scenarios that could take place in the autumn and winter. 

These plans focus mainly on the rapid detection of variants and the continuation of vaccination, testing, and tracing.

The best-case scenario: status quo

In this scenario, the number of cases remains at a low level, though small outbreaks are still possible.

The number of infections may increase slightly due to seasonal factors — the virus is known to spread slower in summer and faster in autumn and winter—  but does not place a significant burden on the health system.

If this happens, no measures beyond those already in place would be necessary.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Is Switzerland lifting its Covid-19 restrictions too quickly?

Not so good: more contaminations

In this second scenario, there is an increase in the number of cases in autumn or winter.

There may be several reasons for this, for example the large proportion of unvaccinated people, seasonal effects — people tend to stay indoors together in cold weather, and contaminations are easier — or the appearance of new, more infectious variants.

This situation could overburden the health system and require the reintroduction of certain measures, such as the obligation to wear a mask outdoors.

Booster vaccinations may also be necessary.

The worst: new virus mutations

In scenario three, one or more new variants appear, against which the vaccine or the post-recovery immunity are less effective or no longer effective.

A new wave of pandemic emerges, requiring strong intervention by the public authorities and a new vaccination.

Which of the three scenarios is most likely to happen?

The government hasn’t said, but judging by the comments of health officials, the latter two are the strongest contenders.

Firstly, because the highly contagious Delta mutation, which is spreading quickly through many countries, is expected to be dominant in Switzerland within a few weeks.

It is expected that the virus will spread mostly to those who are not vaccinated and, to a lesser degree, to people who have only had one shot of the vaccine, according to Andreas Cerny, epidemiologist at the University of Bern

READ MORE: How Switzerland plans to contain the Delta variant

Another concern is related to the appearance of the new variants which could be as or possibly even more contagious than Delta and not as responsive to the current vaccines.

The government said the best chance of avoiding the second or third scenarios is to ensure people are vaccinated. 

“Widespread vaccination of the population is crucial to relieve the burden on the healthcare system and to manage the epidemic. A possible increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the autumn will largely depend on the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated,” the government wrote in a press statement.

The government has also indicating it is preparing for booster vaccinations to take place in 2022 and are encouraging cantons to keep their vaccine infrastructures in place.