Why does Switzerland have the most Covid-related ICU admissions in Europe?

Switzerland’s hospitals have more Covid-related ICU admissions than any other European country on a per capita basis. Why?

Why does Switzerland have the most Covid-related ICU admissions in Europe?
ICU bed capacity in Switzerland is tighter than anywhere else in Europe. Photo: NIC COURY / AFP

Several hospitals across the country have indicated they are at capacity, with surgeries and other non-emergency operations postponed, mirroring the scenes from the early stages of the pandemic. 

Latest figures indicate that 81 percent of the country’s ICU beds are full, with half of those in intensive care admitted due to Covid-related illnesses. 

On a state by state breakdown, only one Swiss canton has an ICU capacity lower than 50 percent: Ticino. 

The capacities have hit 100 percent in Nidwalden and Schaffhausen, while it is above 90 percent in Aargau, Basel City and Vaud. 

The following image shows how this has developed over time, with ICU admissions rising steadily since the start of August. 

The majority of those in the ICU are unvaccinated, Swiss media reports. 

As reported by The Local Switzerland in early August showed that people who had been vaccinated had less than a 0.01 percent chance of getting infected, or a 0.002 percent chance of being hospitalised.

UPDATE: What is the risk of catching Covid and getting sick in Switzerland if you are vaccinated?

How does this compare with other countries? 

Per million inhabitants, there are 34.8 people in ICU in Switzerland. 

This is higher than France (33.7) and Spain (31.9), while most European countries have much lower admission rates. 

In neighbouring Austria, which is similar to Switzerland in population size and wealth, there are just 12.5 people in ICU per million inhabitants. 

Balkan countries have not been considered in the report. 

Why are Switzerland’s ICUs so full?

Many have asked why ICU admissions are highest on the continent, despite Switzerland’s world-class healthcare system. 

Two likely reasons are the country’s lagging vaccination rate and the relatively relaxed measures in effect to prevent the spread of the virus, Switzerland’s Tages Anzeiger reported on Saturday. 

According to the paper, “Switzerland does not really have the situation under control at the moment”. 

‘Not being vaccinated should have consequences’: The verdict on Switzerland’s Covid certificate expansion

Despite plentiful supplies of vaccine doses for several months, Switzerland lags behind much of Europe when it comes to vaccinations.

As at September 5th, just 51 percent of the Swiss public is fully vaccinated. 

That compares with 59 percent of the EU, 60 percent of Germany, 61 percent in France and 63 percent in the UK.  

Switzerland also has also seen more significant protests and demonstrations by vaccine sceptics and Covid deniers since the start of the pandemic – and particularly since the vaccines were rolled out. 

Covid-19 vaccines: Why is Switzerland lagging behind other EU countries?

Switzerland’s measures to combat the spread of the virus are also far less stringent than those seen in most of Europe.

While much of the continent – including Switzerland’s neighbours – have restricted events, bars, restaurants and gyms to people who have tested negative, been vaccinated or recently recovered from the virus, Switzerland’s only restrictions have been for events with more than 1,000 attendees and for travel. 

This is evidenced by the higher case rate in Switzerland, where confirmed cases (324 per million inhabitants) is behind only the UK (557) and Ireland (359). 

The Swiss government is pushing for stricter measures – including requiring the Covid certificate in bars, gyms, restaurants and at private events – although this plan has been delayed. 

READ MORE: When will Switzerland decide whether to enforce the Covid certificate in restaurants?

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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?