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‘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.

Member comments

  1. I would say that the number of people recovered from covid (detected 20000 in last month) is also having relevant influence in the decrease of hospitalisations. According to the numbers (please check that “vast majority”) 56% of hospitalisations are un-vaccitaned, hence I guess the vaccination alone cannot explain the whole trend.

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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.