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COVID-19 STATS

Covid hotspots: Why Switzerland’s situation is ‘extremely unfavourable’

As the year is drawing to a close, Switzerland is registering the highest-ever number of Covid cases. This is where the hotspots are right now.

A skyrocketing number of Covid infections is spreading throughout Switzerland. Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP
A skyrocketing number of Covid infections is spreading throughout Switzerland. Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP

On Wednesday, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) recorded 17,634 new cases of coronavirus, the highest-ever number of daily infections. It is a significant jump from the already high 11,167 contaminations reported seven days ago.

Among its neighbours, Switzerland’s rate of infections is second-highest, below France but well above Germany, Italy and Austria.

To say the least, this epidemiological evolution “is extremely unfavourable”, according to Patrick Mathys, head of FOPH’s crisis management section.

One major reason for such an exponential increase is the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, which experts believe is more transmissible and contagious than existing variants. 

Omicron is now the main mutation in Switzerland, accounting for 57.8 percent of all Covid cases and supplanting the previously dominant Delta.

READ MORE: Switzerland records new daily record for Covid cases

This is what the epidemiological situation looks like now:

With 1,531.4 cases per 100,000 population — up from 1,414.2 a week ago —  the overall incidence over the past 14 days is on the rise again.

The highest rates, which far exceed the national average, are in Obwalden (2,456.1), Geneva (2,360.2), Ticino (2,098.9), Jura (2,066.2), Valais (1,952.3) ) and Vaud (1,903,2).

As the map below shows, as recently as a month ago, the French-speaking cantons and Ticino were mostly unaffected by the rising contamination rates, with most pockets of infection concentrated in eastern and central Switzerland.  In recent weeks, however, the wave of infections has spread westward.

And Omicron is expected to wreak even more damage: “a number of cases exceeding 20,000 per day by the second week of January is a plausible scenario”, according to the latest analysis of the country’s epidemiological evolution by the Covid-19 Task Force.

READ MORE: ‘20,000 cases per day’: Experts draw Covid forecast for Switzerland

In terms of hospitalisations, the central cantons of Obwalden, Nidwalden and Schwyz, as well as Geneva, have the highest rate of hospital admissions per capita.

As far as intensive care units are concerned, 315 beds are occupied by Covid patients, who constitute 36.5 percent of all ICU patients in Switzerland.

By canton, the highest occupancy of ICU beds by coronavirus cases is in Solothurn (87.5 percent), Schaffhausen (66.7), and Neuchâtel (60 percent).

However, this data is at least several days old, and a number of hospitals are sounding the alarm about the worsening situation.

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.

Hospitals in Zurich, Solothurn, Lucerne and Fribourg have also warned of overcrowding in ICUs, with each seeing a higher than 90 percent occupation rate on December 28th. 

The majority of Covid patients are unvaccinated, as this FOPH chart indicates.

What about the death rate?

Unlike the number of infections and hospitalisations, Covid-related deaths have not been increasing.

This FOPH chart demonstrates how the number of coronavirus deaths per 100,000 people has declined between December 15th and 28th.

The fact that fewer people are dying of Covid is due to vaccination, according to Julien Riou, epidemiologist at the University of Bern.

“Vaccines are 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.

What measures will the Federal Council take as the infections continue to soar?

It is not certain at this point.

Current measures, such as the Covid certificate, as well as 2G and 2G-Plus rules, are supposed to stay in place until at least January 24th but could, depending on the epidemiological situation, be extended.

In the meantime, while Health Minister Alain Berset said on Wednesday that “the time has not yet come for the Federal Council to take new measures to fight the pandemic”, he did specify that “the next package of  measures, which includes closures, is ready”.

“The Federal Council can react very quickly, as soon as precise data on the virulence of the Omicron variant becomes available”, Berset added.

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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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