Was Austria’s coronavirus shutdown introduced too late?

Was Austria’s coronavirus shutdown introduced too late?
A man walks past closed market stalls at the Naschmarkt in Vienna on November 2, 2020. Photo: GEORG HOCHMUTH / APA / AFP
With infections and deaths continuing to spiral across Austria, several experts have weighed in to criticise the government for waiting too long before putting lockdown measures in place.

Austria introduced a number of restrictive coronavirus measures on Tuesday, November 3rd. 

Just days before the decision was made, Austrian authorities had said they were unconcerned about rising infection rates. 

On October 20th, Austrian experts considered stricter lockdown measures to be unlikely, despite criticism from the neighbouring German state of Bavaria that Austria’s rules were too relaxed to prevent the spread of the virus. 

READ: Austria blamed for Bavaria's Covid-19 surge 

However, on Wednesday, November 4th, new infections crossed the 6,000 mark for the first time, with 6,211 new cases. 

A total of 35 people died, while hospitalisations – including patients requiring intensive care treatment – also increased. 

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had previously said 6,000 would be the magic mark for putting in place lockdown rules, before making the decision on Saturday, October 31st, to embrace several shutdown measures early. 

On Thursday, the number of daily new infections in Vienna crossed the 1,000 mark for the first time. 

‘A critical yet predictable situation’

Richard Greil, a virology specialist from the University Hospital of Salzburg, told the Kronen Zeitung that the measures had been put in place too late. 

“In my eyes this is a very late lockdown. This put us in a critical situation that was also predictable” Greil said. 

Greil said he felt an extended lockdown – or stricter measures – was likely. 

Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, MedUni Vienna, from the MedUni in Vienna, also felt a further lockdown was likely – although he said it depended on the population’s adherence to the measures. 

“It depends on whether people play along as they did in March (if there’s an extended lockdown),” he said. 

“We do not yet have any experience of how the infection process will develop over the Christmas period. But we know what helps: wear a mask, keep your distance and wash your hands – we just have to do it.”

Prof. Dr. Michael Kunze, from the Austrian Centre for Public Health, agreed, saying even the strictest measures wouldn’t make an impact if they weren’t supported by the population. 

“The strictest measures are of no use if people don't adhere to them enough. Communication has failed here” he said. 

“However, I see the greatest mistake is that cases still occur in retirement homes. That shouldn't be.”

Austria’s lockdown is set to run the duration of November, but can be extended if hospitalisation numbers remain high. 

Why the wait? 

In a press conference explaining the necessity of the new measures, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said the change in course was largely due to an “explosion” in new coronavirus cases. 

Anschober told the press conference that the country’s modelling from October 20th showed that cases were likely to remain under control.

“But then the data suddenly exploded” Anschober said. 

READ: Austria announces new lockdown measures from Tuesday

Daily case numbers were forecasted to reach 2,200 towards the end of the month, but hit more than 5,000 on October 30th. 

Not only did case numbers more than double, hospitalisation rates also skyrocketed. 

“If we don't break the trend, we'll have massive problems in the intensive care units from mid-November to the end of November,” said Anschober.

The Health Minister warned that, in a worst case scenario, Austrian hospitals may need to take a ‘triage’ approach in deciding who should receive treatment. 

Anschober told the press conference he was confident hospitals could manage “the spike that is now emerging without triage”, but warned of the “dynamic development” of the current situation. 

“The resources are finite” Anschober said. 


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