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COVID-19 RULES

Covid-19 infections: Has Switzerland reached the peak yet?

Swiss government and health experts have said that once the number of infections in the country peaks, the pandemic would wind down - and measures will be dropped. But are we there yet?

Vaccines are credited with improving Switzerland’s epidemiological evolution. Photo by SETH HERALD / AFP
Vaccines are credited with improving Switzerland’s epidemiological evolution. Photo by SETH HERALD / AFP

On Wednesday, Switzerland announced the immediate end of the work-from-home obligation and the contact quarantine requirement.

It also laid out two possible paths toward lifting of almost all other pandemic-related rules — including Covid certificates, restrictions on private gatherings, and possibly some mask mandates — from February 17th.

READ MORE: Switzerland announces plans to relax all Covid measures

However, the measures will be scrapped only if “the current wave of infections passes its peak”, authorities said.

“This approach will only be appropriate if the wave of infections has already peaked. Immunisation rates among the population must be sufficiently high and infection rates and hospital admissions must be falling”.

The authorities did not specify what they mean by the “sufficiently high” immunisation rates.

However, Tanja Stadler, president of the Covid-19 Task Force, said earlier that “the number of infections should increase until a third, or even half, of the Swiss population is infected”, resulting in “an immunisation of 65 to 85 percent of the population” — either through vaccination or infection.

At present, 68.11 percent of people in Switzerland are fully vaccinated, according to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH).

What exactly is this “peak” authorities are referring to?

To reach the peak in a pandemic means that the number of new cases has begun to level off rather than continue to increase.

In practical terms, a surge’s peak is only known in retrospect, after the numbers stabilise in a sustained way.

Swiss health officials have been saying since mid-January that the peak in clearly visible.

“It is possible that we have reached the peak”, Virginie Masserey, the head of the FOPH’s infection control department, said on January 18th.

Has Switzerland actually hit the peak?

FOPH figures contradict this because the number of new infections is not dropping and has not significantly levelled off.

On Wednesday, 41,175 new cases were reported, from high 30,000s in previous days.

The coming days will show if the upward trend will continue or whether the numbers will start to continually decrease.

Is the ‘peak’ a reliable sign of the pandemic’s end?

In April 2020, at the height of the first wave, the Swiss government believed that coronavirus would “peak” early that summer.

That has, indeed, happened, with Switzerland relaxing many of the restrictions as infection rates waned. However, cases skyrocketed again in the fall and through the winter, leading to another wave — and further measures.

There are, however, differences between the epidemiological situation then and now.

First of all, coronavirus mutations that were most prevalent at the beginning and in the later stages of the pandemic, namely the Alpha and Delta strains, were much more virulent than the present dominant variant, Omicron.

Secondly, the vaccines, which were rolled out in Switzerland at the beginning of January 2021, are believed to have been a major game-changer, and are credited with significantly lowering the rate of infections, hospitalisations and deaths.

While the vaccines are not as effective against Omicron as against previous, more deadly strains, full immunisation, including a booster dose, protect against more severe course of the disease and prevent the saturation of the healthcare system.   

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why does Switzerland want to end Covid restrictions?
 

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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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