Many European countries saw Germany as a beacon of hope during the first Coronavirus wave, but as it now struggles with more severe infections than at any other point in the pandemic, not any more.
Germany was seen as a beacon for other European countries during the first coronavirus wave and hailed for one of the world’s best health care systems. But it is now beginning to struggle with more severe infections than at any other point during the pandemic.
Coronavirus infection numbers hit an all-time record Friday, with nearly 24,000 new daily cases recorded — and so did the number of patients in the country’s intensive care units. Official data from the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive and Emergency Medicine (DIVI) show that the number of Covid-19 patients in German intensive care units (ICU) has climbed from 267 on September 21 to 3,615 as of November 20 — a more than 13-fold increase in the space of just two months.
Europe’s largest economy has gotten through the pandemic fairly well for now compared to its neighboring countries. This in in part due to its high intensive care capacity with 33.9 beds per 100,000 inhabitants; in contrast, Italy has just 8.6. But with Covid cases across the region skyrocketing, even Germany’s healthcare system is under strain and hospitals in some areas are increasingly coming close to their limits.
Germany’s leadership on Friday warned the system could collapse in weeks if the current trajectory continues. “The number of severe cases in intensive patients is still rising. The number of deaths is something that is not really being talked about and it remains very high,” said Steffen Seibert, spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“We have not yet managed to bring the numbers back to a low level. We have basically only managed to get past the first step so far, that is, to stop the strong, steep, exponential increase of infections and we are now stable, but our numbers are still very, very high.”
Michael Oppert, head of intensive care at the Ernst von Bergmann hospital in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, is equally concerned about the dramatic rise in recent weeks — and expects things to get worse.
“We are not at the tip of the wave now, at least as far as I see,” he told a visiting CNN team this week. “And we do have a capacity for a few more patients, but if this carries on at the speed that we are experiencing right now I would imagine that even our hospital, with over 1,000 beds, will come to a point where we have to send patients home or to other hospitals to get treated.”
Bettina Schade, chief nurse on the Covid ward in the same hospital, described how the ward has changed over the last few weeks. “The numbers of patients have been increasing. We are getting a lot more patients with varying degrees of illness. Both for the normal Covid ward, but many also come to the emergency unit and very quickly have to be put into ICU,” she said. “We are currently experiencing having to put a lot of patients from the normal Covid ward into ICU very quickly because patients deteriorate very quickly.”
This applies even to many younger patients with severe symptoms, said Tillman Schumacher, a senior infectious disease physician. “We have patients of 30 or 40 years here who are on a ventilator and I am not sure if they’ll survive.”
Only two of the 16 ICU beds were vacant and the hospital staff was already canceling non-urgent operations to free up capacity — as well as making plans to convert more of its general intensive care facilities into Covid units.
Dr. Uwe Janssens, head of the DIVI, explained what measures would be taken if the current spike continues. “The regular program of hospitals has to be shut down, a partial closing down of the regular operations and admissions of patients which you can delay for several weeks without any strain, they can be delayed. There are people who don’t need an emergency surgery or an emergency catheter or something like that. They can be delayed. And doing this you get the capacity and get the nurses and the physicians to help the ICU physicians and ICU nurses on their wards.”