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Why are most Covid patients in Switzerland foreign nationals?

A significant number of the coronavirus patients currently treated in Swiss hospitals are foreign nationals.

Why are most Covid patients in Switzerland foreign nationals?
Most Covid patients in Swiss ICUs are immigrants. Photo by MARIO TAMA / AFP

While no official hospitalisation statistics based on nationality have been published in Switzerland, Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) reported on Sunday that most Covid patients are “people with a migration background” — primarily those returning from visiting their home countries, particularly in the Balkans.

The newspaper based its report on information it received from health professionals and cantonal public health offices.

“In many cases, it is a question of poorly informed people or those who did not have the time or energy to deal with the vaccination procedure. Or they postponed the vaccination until after the holidays in their country of origin”, NZZ said.

Hospitals and health officials are confirming this trend.

 “We have a high proportion of patients with a migration background. Some did not want to be vaccinated. Others did not know that they should have been vaccinated”, said Hans Pargger, head of the intensive care unit at the University Hospital Basel.

The Thurgau health director Urs Martin also noted that most Covid sufferers in his canton’s hospitals are “related to Balkan countries. It was not possible to “communicate successfully with these people regarding vaccination”.

“From what I hear from the hospitals, that’s a problem”, said Lukas Engelberger, head of the Conference of Cantonal Health Directors.

He added that “many patients come from countries with lax controls, and some traveled with forged certificates”.

In view of this situation, Engelberger said he will propose an “unpopular measure” to the Federal Council: “We must seriously consider reintroducing the entry quarantine.”

What is the situation in Swiss hospitals?

As The Local reported on August 19th, “intensive care units in Switzerland have recorded a very strong increase in seriously ill Covid-19 patients”.

On that day, 183 intensive care beds were taken up by coronavirus patients — a vast majority of them unvaccinated. That is a significant spike from August 1st, when only 23 Covid patients were hospitalised in ICUs.

READ MORE: Swiss hospitals: Sharp increase in the number of Covid patients in intensive care

What is the government doing to reverse the trend?

On August 16th, it launched a new “vaccine rhyme” campaign to encourage more people to get immunised.

Its aim is to nudge people to get the jab with a rhyme in three national languages: “Nicht verpassen: impfen lassen” in German, “À ne pas manquer: faites-vous vacciner” in French, and “Non rimandare: fatti vaccinare” in Italian.

READ MORE: Switzerland launches ‘vaccine rhyme’ campaign to boost lagging jab rate

To date, more than 50 percent of the Swiss population has been fully vaccinated.

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Reader question: When will Switzerland authorise second Covid booster shots?

Even as other countries have started to administer fourth doses of a Covid-19 vaccine and the infections are on the rise again, Swiss health authorities still haven’t rolled out second boosters. This is why, and what lies ahead.

Reader question: When will Switzerland authorise second Covid booster shots?

As The Local reported on Tuesday, coronavirus is circulating again in Switzerland and rates of contamination are expected to soar in the coming weeks.

In fact, over a million people in Switzerland could catch the virus this summer.

 “More than 80,000 new contaminations per week” are expected in the next two months, according to Tanja Stadler, the former head of the Covid-19 Task Force — much more than during the past two summers, when the rate of infections slowed down.

READ MORE: ‘Over a million people’ in Switzerland could be infected with Covid this summer

Data from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) indicates that the upward trend is already underway. The number of new reported cases has been soaring in the past few weeks — from below 10,000 a week in mid-April and beginning of May, to 24,704 new cases in the past seven days.

These are officially registered contaminations, but as “most of infected people will not be tested, the number of confirmed cases will be smaller on paper than in reality”, Stadler pointed out.

Although nearly all cases in Switzerland (99 percent) are caused by Omicron and its sub-variants, which are more contagious but less severe that the original Covid viruses, “more vulnerable people are likely to end up in hospital, and long Covid cases are also likely to rise”, she said.

What is FOPH’s official stance on second boosters?

Health authorities are currently recommending them only for people in high-risk categories — that is, those with a very weak immune system.

“There is no need for the general public to receive an additional booster vaccination in the current situation. According to available data, people who are fully vaccinated or vaccinated and cured are still well protected against severe forms of COVID-19”, FOPH said on May 23rd.

There has been no change in strategy since then, despite the increasing infection rates.

However, authorities relented on one point: they now allow fourth doses to be administered to people whose Covid certificates have expired but who plan to travel to countries where up-to-date immunisations are required.

FOPH said these travellers can get “off-label” shots — meaning being vaccinated before the official authorisation to do so is issued — but these doses will not be free of charge.

“The price will be set by the cantons and the vaccination centres”, FOPH said, adding, however, that “second boosters for people with weakened immune systems will remain free”.

Why are Swiss health authorities dragging their feet in authorising second boosters?

As with the original vaccine rollout at the beginning of 2021, which took longer here than elsewhere, Swiss slowness may be due to the abundance of caution. For instance, drugs regulator Swissmedic “took longer than many countries to approve new vaccines”.

This time around, FOPH is taking its time to examine benefits of second boosters for general population (as opposed to at-risk groups).

Part of it may be the uncertainty prevailing over the efficacy of vaccines, which were conceived to combat the original early strains like Delta, not the variants, and sub-variants, that emerged later.

“The current vaccine does not provide clear protection against the Omicron”, according to Giuseppe Pantaleo, head of the immunology unit at Vaud university hospital (CHUV).

So when will Switzerland authorise second boosters?

Health officials said they will issue official recommendations “before the summer holidays”, which means shortly.

Two scenarios are currently  foreseen by FOPH: “It may be that an additional booster vaccination is recommended only for people over 65 and those suffering from certain chronic diseases, but it is also possible that it will be intended for the entire population”.

READ MORE: UPDATE: When will Switzerland roll out second Covid boosters?