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Why Switzerland’s Covid cases are skyrocketing despite vaccinations

The number of new daily infections is rising quickly, mirroring trends from 2020. Will Swiss authorities act to rein in the spread of the disease?

Similarly to 2020, more people are contracting coronavirus this fall.
The number of Covid infections is soaring in Switzerland, but hospitalisations remain low. Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

On Friday, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) has reported 3,922 new Covid cases registered in Switzerland since the previous day.

This number is four times higher than daily contaminations detected in the country in mid-October. In fact, they are at the same level now as they were in the fall of 2020, when the epidemiological situation was deteriorating rapidly.

At that time, the Federal Council introduced mask mandates outdoors in all areas where “the concentration of people does not allow the necessary distances to be respected”, along with 11 pm curfew for bars and restaurants, the closure of nightclubs and discos, as well as the limit of 10 people for private gatherings and 50 for public events.

People were asked to leave their homes only if strictly necessary, while quarantines and other restrictions were in effect for those returning from foreign travel.

Why are Covid infections on the rise in Switzerland again?

At that time, Covid vaccines were not yet available, so why are infections rates similar now, even though more than 73 percent of Switzerland’s population over the age of 12 is now fully inoculated against the disease?

The increase is detected mainly in cantons of central and eastern Switzerland, such as Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Nidwalden, Schwyz, Uri and St.Gallen, where the rate of vaccinations lags behind the national average.

“It’s a bit like raining all over Switzerland. Some cantons have umbrellas, others don’t, so some regions are wet, and others not”, virologist Didier Trono explained in an interview with Swiss news outlet RTS.

Another expert, Julien Riou, an epidemiologist at the University of Bern, concurs. He said some cantons “have much more vaccination coverage than others”, accounting  for “the current explosion of cases”.

This means that southern and western Switzerland, where the rate of inoculations is higher, have registered fewer cases.

Another factor which does not cause infections per se but plays a role in spreading the virus is the weather.

Patrick Mathys, head of the crisis management section of the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), pointed out that the number of cases goes up as soon as colder weather sets in, driving more people indoors, where the virus circulates and contaminates more easily.

READ MORE: Switzerland’s Covid cases are soaring again. Here’s why

Will Switzerland implement new restrictions to rein in the spread of coronavirus?

The Federal Council has not indicated any such plans for the immediate future because hospitals and intensive care units are not overcrowded at the moment.

“There are many more cases, but there are proportionately fewer hospitalisations, fewer severe cases and fewer deaths, so we could say that this wave is going to do less damage”, Riou noted.

Officials believe this is because the vast majority of those who are most at risk of Covid-related complications  — the elderly and people suffering from serious chronic illnesses — are vaccinated, with booster shots now being administered to those groups.

More than 88 percent of people over the age of 70 have been inoculated, according to FOPH.

They are also are pinning their hopes on the positive results of the “Vaccination Week” that is taking place throughout Switzerland from November 8th to the 14th.

READ MORE: What will Switzerland’s ‘vaccine week’ look like?

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For members


EXPLAINED: Why are Covid infections soaring in Switzerland despite vaccination?

The number of coronavirus infections in Switzerland has increased exponentially in recent weeks, showing no sign of slowing down. Does this mean that vaccines are ineffective against the virus?

Not enough people in Switzerland are vaccinated to prevent new outbreaks, experts say. Photo by Steven Cornfield on Unsplah
Not enough people in Switzerland are vaccinated to prevent new outbreaks, experts say. Photo by Steven Cornfield on Unsplah

With the number of new daily infections exceeding 8,000 in the past days — and even topping 10,000 at the beginning of December — the current epidemiological situation in Switzerland is mirroring trends from 2020, before vaccines have entered the picture.

Health experts are qualifying Switzerland’s epidemiological situation as “critical”, especially as ICUs in some Swiss hospitals are reaching their full capacities and there is even talk of impending need for triage.

Does this mean that mRNA-type vaccines used in Switzerland — Moderna and Pfizer — are not effective against coronavirus and its variants, including Delta?

Officials say it is because the vaccination coverage is insufficient.

The most recent data from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), indicates that 66.11 percent of all adults in Switzerland have been fully vaccinated up to December 7th.

When counting in people from the age of 12, the total goes up to 75.23 percent.

This means that about 25 percent of Switzerland’s population 12 years and up remains unvaccinated — a total of over 2 million people.

Health experts have repeatedly said that the virus spreads predominantly among those who have not been inoculated against Covid, and numbers confirm this trend.

READ MORE: Covid-19 in Switzerland: Why number of deaths among the vaccinated is misinterpreted

At the end of November, Switzerland’s Covid-19 Task Force has released a range of statistical findings about the transmission of the virus, including the fact that those who have not been vaccinated are three times more likely to infect others.

On the other hand, people  who have been vaccinated are three times less contagious than those who have not had the jab. 

These findings dispel one of the more pervasive myths about the virus which has been circulating since the start of the vaccination campaign — that the vaccinated and the unvaccinated are just as likely to transmit the virus and infect others. 

The false claim has often been used by Covid sceptics as a reason why vaccines are ineffective. 

READ MORE: Unvaccinated ‘three times more contagious’ than vaccinated in Switzerland

What about cases of infection found among the fully vaccinated people in Switzerland?

A good way to get a clear picture of whether vaccines protect against the virus is to look at Covid-related hospitalisations and deaths.

FOPH statistics show that 264 Covid patients have been admitted to ICUs until December 6th — up from 154 on November 22nd and 217 on November 28th.

The majority of patients treated in ICUs in Switzerland are unvaccinated, as this FOPH chart shows.

Also, if we compare the number of coronavirus patients currently in Swiss ICUs to the situation in December 2020, we see that at this time last year, 453 Covid patients were treated in intensive care units — nearly double.

“If hospitals have not yet collapsed, it is thanks to vaccination”, said Urs Karrer, the task force’s vice-president.

However, vaccines are not infallible

Health authorities have stated from the beginning that vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer offer a 94 percent protection against Covid in general, and slightly less against the Delta strain. This is still a high level of immunity, but it does imply that a certain number of people can still get infected.

If a vaccinated person does get infected they will most likely not end up in an ICU, according to Julien Riou, epidemiologist at the University of Bern.

“Vaccines are also very effective at preventing 90 to 95 percent of severe cases and deaths. So the people who are most at risk now are the vulnerable and the non-vaccinated”, he said

READ MORE: How many vaccinated and unvaccinated people have died from Covid in Switzerland?