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COVID-19 RULES

Omicron: Could Switzerland close its restaurants again?

With Switzerland hitting its highest confirmed case numbers on Wednesday - and higher numbers to follow - how likely is a tighter lockdown?

Déjà-vu: Could Swiss restaurants close again because of Omicron? Photo by Miroslav Slapka on Unsplash
Déjà-vu: Could Swiss restaurants close again because of Omicron? Photo by Miroslav Slapka on Unsplash

Further closures have been ruled out in Switzerland for the time being, experts are saying this measure may soon be necessary to keep the Swiss healthcare system from being overburdened by Covid patients.

In a report addressed to the Federal Council on December 11th and made public on Tuesday, the Covid-19 Task Force advocates the closure of all public places where wearing a mask is not possible, such as restaurants.

“If the spread of the Omicron variant cannot be contained, all places where it is not possible to wear a mask should be closed”, the report states.

The Task Force calls for these shutdowns to remain in force until there is a vaccine that protects against the new variant, which is not expected until spring.

The current vaccines used in Switzerland, Moderna and Pfizer, are believed to offer strong protection against Delta, but their efficacy is thought to be weaker in regards to Omicron.

And while health officials say a booster shot may offer higher resistance to Omicron, emerging data indicates that it diminishes after 10 weeks, though it keeps protecting against severe disease for longer.

As the Federal Council is not meeting during end-of-the-year holidays, any decisions regarding modifications of current measures would only be announced on January 12th.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What are Switzerland’s current Covid measures?

There is, however, a growing concern among hospital officials about the overcrowding of intensive care units.

The Geneva University Hospitals (HUG), Switzerland’s largest medical facility, expects to be “under very strong tension” until the end of February, according to its director, Bertrand Levrat.

Due to the highly contagious Omicron variant, which is now dominant in Switzerland, the pace of admissions “is accelerating”, Levrat said.

READ MORE: Omicron officially dominant in Switzerland

Other Swiss hospitals are under increasing pressure as well. Lucerne’s cantonal hospital, for instance, is overwhelmed by “mostly young and unvaccinated” Covid patients, “who require about as many resources as five to ten patients with heart problems,” said  Christoph Henzen, the hospital’s chief of internal medicine department.

“We are therefore in the process of preparing the decisions to triage patients”, he added, also calling for stricter nationwide measures to curb the spread the disease and help hospitals function more efficiently.

In Solothurn, Zurich and Fribourg over 90 percent of ICU beds are also occupied.

While in Solothurn “all urgent interventions can still be carried out”, according to spokesperson Oliver Schneider, in Zurich “urgent operations have to be postponed. We currently have 18 free places in intensive care units. That is very few”, said Ronald Alder deputy manager of the Zurich Hospitals Association.

Of 190 certified intensive care places, 57 are occupied by Covid patients — 85 percent of whom are not vaccinated —  and the trend is increasing.

Even though ICUs are nearly at full capacity, emergency care is in place and that no triages have been carried out as yet, Alder said.

 “Anyone who is sick should definitely see a doctor. We can’t have more patients with serious illnesses die”.

In Fribourg, 95.7 percent of intensive care beds are currently occupied. “We haven’t had to carry out any triages in the true sense yet, but we had to postpone urgent operations”, spokesperson Priska Rauber noted.

The fact that Swiss hospitals are still functioning is thanks to solidarity and cooperation among the institutions.

For example, Zurich has a database into which the free intensive care places are entered twice a day. The hospitals and the emergency services can always see where there are still places to accommodate patients.

READ MORE: Switzerland records new daily record for Covid cases

Member comments

  1. “The Task Force calls for these shutdowns to remain in force until there is a vaccine that protects against the new variant, which is not expected until spring.”

    Given the relatively mild impact (I am talking about about people getting really ill, not just a mild common cold) Omicron has had in e.g. South Africa and Denmark, this is just absurd.

    1. What the relevance of experiences in South Africa and Denmark (where most variables are totally different) have on Switzerland is beyond me and irrelevant.

      We are talking about Switzerland here.

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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