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STATISTICS

‘Reasonably optimistic’: Are Switzerland’s Covid hotspots cooling down at last?

Soaring infections but stable hospitalisation and death rates: this is what the epidemiological situation looks like this week across Switzerland.

A nurse sits on the floor at a hospital
Despite surging infections, Switzerland's hospitals have not seen a relative rise in admissions. Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

There is an obvious paradox in Switzerland’s coronavirus-related data: while the number of infections is record-high with over 38,000 new cases reported on Wednesday, most health experts draw a fairly upbeat picture of the pandemic’s evolution.

According to Virginie Masserey, head of the infection control section at the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH),  “we can be reasonably optimistic” that the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

In fact, with more people contracting the highly contagious Omicron virus, the level of immunity is growing within the population, signalling, as many epidemiologists believe, pandemic’s end .

READ MORE: When will the Covid pandemic end in Switzerland?

Also paradoxically, despite the record-breaking number of infections, the overall situation in terms of geographical distribution of cases looks better that last week’s.

The bulk of cases are now concentrated in Geneva, where the infection rate of 6,606.39 per 100,000 people exceeds the national average of 4,087.09 / 100,00, followed by Valais (6100.09).

But while the situation in French-speaking regions, as well as in Graubünden and Ticino, is still tense, infection rates in other cantons fall below the national average.

Image: FOPH

For comparison, this is what the situation looked like a week ago, on January 13th.

Image: FOPH

What about hospitalisations?

If health authorities are not panicking and, in fact, have just relaxed some measures, it is because the high infection rates are not reflected in the number of Covid-related hospital admissions.

Despite repeated warnings throughout November and December that the healthcare system was on the verge of being saturated and triage was imminent, this has not happened.

As at January 18th, there were 247 Covid patients in Swiss ICUs — 20 less than last week.

Image: FOPH

Health officials attribute this to the fact that Omicron, which currently accounts for nearly 88 percent of all infections in Switzerland, is less virulent than its predecessors Delta and Alpha, especially among the vaccinated population.

This means that vaccinated and boosted people are much less likely to have severe symptoms and end up in hospitals than their unvaccinated counterparts.

Image: FOPH

The same applies to Covid-related deaths: their number remains low and stable, but is most prevalent among the unvaccinated, as this chart indicates:

READ MORE: Covid in Switzerland: How common are hospitalisations and deaths among the boosted?

At this point, nearly 68 percent of Switzerland's population is fully vaccinated, with 35.47 percent having received the third shot — rates that still trail below the European Union average.

However, within the most vulnerable group — those over 65 years of age — 90.64 percent have had two shots, and 71.56 percent have had their booster dose as well.

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COVID-19 STATS

‘Too early to celebrate’: How Omicron is still holding Switzerland in its grip

Although epidemiologists believe the pandemic in Switzerland has likely reached its peak, the number of Covid cases continues to climb.

There is still space in Swiss ICUs at the moment. Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash
There is still space in Swiss ICUs at the moment. Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash

On Wednesday, Switzerland reached a new record in terms of coronavirus cases: 43,199 new infections were reported. There are now 4,821.80 contaminations per 100,000 people — the highest number ever recorded.

“The increase is exponential”, said Urs Karrer, vice-president of the Covid-19 Task Force.

And even though Virginie Masserey, head of the infection control unit at the Federal Department of Public Health (FOPH) said “we can be reasonably optimistic”, others, like Patrick Mathys, FOPH’s chief of crisis management warned that “it is too early to celebrate” pandemic’s end, as Omicron continues to spread rapidly across the country.

Where are the current Covid hotspots?

While in the fall most pockets of infections were found in the eastern and central parts of Switzerland, they have since migrated west, now affecting mostly French-speaking cantons.

Geneva has the highest rate (7,159.77 / 100,000), followed by Neuchâtel (6,568.16). Vaud, Fribourg, and Valais also exceed the national average for the number of declared cases.

Image: FOPH

READ MORE: Covid: One in ten Swiss infected in past week

On the other hand, there is some positive news regarding hospitalisations: the number of Covid patients admitted to intensive care units has been stable and even dropping “due to the growing immunity of the population and the lower virulence of Omicron”, according to Karrer.

As at January 25, 215 ICU beds are occupied by coronavirus patients — 32 less than the previous week.

Image: FOPH

Virtually all patients admitted to Swiss healthcare facilities have contracted the more virulent Delta variant which, though less prevalent than Omicron, is still spreading in Switzerland among the unvaccinated.

As in previous weeks, the vast majority of patients are unvaccinated.

Image: FOPH

The number of deaths is also dropping due to vaccinations, according to FOPH.

Image: FOPH

What do health experts say about the possible evolution of the epidemiological situation?

A number of health officials believe that pandemic is winding down.

Marcel Tanner, an epidemiologist at University of Basel, said that the situation should stabilise in the summer and generalised rules such face masks and the Covid certificate mandate will no longer be necessary “if we continue to get vaccinated and get booster doses”.

Other experts also say that with more people contracting Omicron, the level of immunity is growing within the population, signalling the pandemic’s end.

READ MORE: Covid-19: What will summer 2022 look like in Switzerland?

However, a new development to contend with on the epidemiological front is the recent appearance of the Omicron sub-variant,  the so-called BA.2.

This sub-type is already present in Switzerland, although still rare, as opposed to the main Omicron variant, which now accounts for nearly 94 percent of all Covid cases.

“This makes Omicron even more mysterious. To date, we cannot explain this atypical development”, said Richard Neher, who researches viruses at University of Basel.

A return to square one of the global health crisis is unlikely, Neher said, but “it is too early to speak of an endemic situation as the proportion of unimmunised people  is still too high in Switzerland.

And it can’t be excluded that Omicron evolves again — producing more mutations — or  that a variant like Delta regains strength, Neher pointed out.

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