EXPLAINED: Why the third wave of Covid-19 in Switzerland hasn’t been as bad as previous ones?

EXPLAINED: Why the third wave of Covid-19 in Switzerland hasn't been as bad as previous ones?
The third wave is milder due to vaccinations. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
The first two coronavirus waves in Switzerland — in the spring and fall of 2020 — were marked by confinement, shutdowns, and a slew of restrictions imposed amid increasing infections, hospitalisations and deaths. But the current phase is less dramatic. Why is this?

Switzerland has been experiencing the third wave of the pandemic since the beginning of March, when the number of reported Covid infections went up by nearly 5 percent, after declining steadily the second half of February.

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

Also, the R-rate, which indicates how fast the virus is spreading, jumped from below 1, where epidemiologists want it to be, to 1.04 currently. This means the daily number of cases is climbing.

So why isn’t this wave as bad as the previous two?

This time things are different: contaminations are increasing at a slower pace than in the first and second waves, when Switzerland experienced exponential growth.

Also, the number of deaths is dropping steadily, unlike during the previous waves, and intensive care units in Swiss hospitals are not full.

“The health situation is now relatively stable in our country”, Swiss President Guy Parmelin said this week. “There are good reasons for optimism”. 

Virginie Masserey, head of the infection control section at the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), also noted that “the epidemiological situation is reassuring”.

Why is the situation improving?

Vaccination plays a major role in this trend reversal, health experts say.

More than 10 percent of the Swiss population has received two doses of the vaccine to date.

This is not enough to develop herd immunity — at least 60 percent have to be inoculated to achieve that — but it is already showing positive effects among older people, who were the first to receive their shots.

And as the vaccination campaign is accelerating across the country and with more cantons starting to inoculate younger groups, infection rates are expected to drop even further.

READ MORE: Inside Switzerland’s two new, large-scale Covid-19 vaccination centres

Apart from vaccinations, more widespread testing, which began in mid-March, also helps control the spread of the virus, Masserey said.

Are we out of the woods or do we still need to be concerned?

Nobody knows for sure.

Some experts warn that Switzerland is headed for 10,000 infections a day after winding back some of its Covid measures in April.

“With the easing, Switzerland is taking a risk”, said  Martin Ackermann, chairman of Switzerland’s Covid-19 Task Force.

READ MORE: Experts warn Switzerland headed for ‘10,000 infections a day’ after winding back Covid measures

However, this ‘worst-case’ scenario could happen only if Switzerland slows down its vaccination campaign.

“If we do not vaccinate enough, the virus will continue to circulate, and the greater the circulation, the greater the risk of the appearance of new variants”, said Blaise Genton, head of the division of infectious diseases at Vaud’s university hospital (CHUV).

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