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‘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: 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.