Austria’s reopening plans in jeopardy as coronavirus infections hit three-month high

The number of new coronavirus infections crossed the 3,000 mark on Friday, the first time since mid-December.

A police officer checks a car at the Austria-Germany border.

The increase has put Austria’s planned March 27th loosening in doubt, while several districts are at risk of being put under isolation. 

On Friday, March 12th, 3,126 new coronavirus infections were detected. This is the first time since December 12th when more than 3,000 infections were detected in a 24-hour period. 

The mark has been steadily climbing in Austria since lockdown measures were relaxed on February 8th. 

On Thursday, March 11th, infections approached the 3,000 mark – with 2,997 infections recorded over a 24-hour period. 

The increase throws into question Austria’s planned next round of lockdown loosening, which is set to take place on March 27th. 

More exit restrictions on the way?

Several districts in Austria are approaching a seven-day incidence of 400 coronavirus cases per 100,000, the level which triggers exit restrictions.

In areas subject to exit restrictions, people are not allowed to leave without evidence of a negative test, with police setting up checkpoints and carrying out random checks. 

The number of new infections continues to rise nationwide. Wiener Neustadt and Hermagor are currently above the critical limit, as are Jennersdorf and St. Johann im Pongau. 

On Thursday exit restrictions were extended to the entire Gastein Valley.

 The districts of Lienz in East Tyrol, Weiz, Perg and Wels-Land could also soon reach the limit, Wiener Zeitung newspaper reported on Friday. 

Which states are hardest hit? 

The the 7-day incidence, or number of new infections with the coronavirus in the past seven days per 100,000 inhabitants, is 191.6 according to the Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES).

The number is highest in Salzburg (257.2), Burgenland (238.1) and Vienna (230.7). The value is still lowest in Vorarlberg (72.5) and Tyrol (106.8).

Around 631,427 people or about 7 percent of the population have received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Around 256,268 people have received both vaccination.

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Will Austria bring back face mask mandate to battle rising Covid cases?

As the number of Covid-19 infections and related hospitalisations rises in Austria, many are asking for new measures to be adopted, especially a mask mandate.

Will Austria bring back face mask mandate to battle rising Covid cases?

Austria has seen an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations, with 1,905 people currently hospitalised with the disease, compared to 826 three weeks ago – a 130 percent jump, data from the Health Ministry shows.

And the situation will worsen, according to Austrian experts.

The Covid prognosis consortium in Austria released a new report saying it expects an increase of 52 percent in Covid patients hospitalised in the next two weeks.

In a “worst case” scenario, as many as 3,428 people who tested positive would need a hospital bed on October 19th, the latest forecast said. A “further significant increase in hospitalisation is to be expected, with the Covid population in the ICU area remaining almost unchanged”, the experts summarised.

READ ALSO: Reader question: When should I get a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Austria?

In comparison, last autumn, the country was on an Austria-wide lockdown and on November 28th, there were 2,767 infected persons hospitalised.

However, the experts said there is a very high proportion of incidental findings among hospitalised patients. Only around 22 percent of those presently hospitalised were admitted with Covid-19 symptoms. In the intensive care unit, this proportion was only 12 percent – most people go to the hospital for other reasons and find they test positive for the coronavirus.

Calls for pandemic-containment measures

Still, the consortium warned about staff shortages in hospitals. “The increased infection pressure is currently also translating into above-average unplanned staff absences”, it wrote.

READ ALSO: From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season

In view of the situation in the hospitals, experts are calling for the reintroduction of mandatory masks.

Virologist Dorothee von Laer from the Medical University of Innsbruck criticised the government, saying authorities were once again “too late” to take measures.

“We are now at the last push to reintroduce compulsory masks indoors so that the omicron wave from spring is not repeated,” the virologist told Kurier.

“How much longer to watch Covid go through the roof? Winter is still long, and hospitals are getting crowded with decreasing staff and increasing occupancy. Mask up! #CovidIsntOver,” Thomas Czypionka, Head of IHS Health Economics and Health Policy of the Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS), said on Twitter.

Currently, people in Austria only need to wear masks in the health sector area, such as in hospitals and elderly care homes. However, the capital Vienna has stricter rules, imposing a mask mandate on public transport.

Only in a ‘state of emergency’

Speaking to public broadcaster ORF, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) ruled out the immediate introduction of a mask mandate.

He said stricter rules would only be imposed if the situation in hospitals “escalates, becomes threatening, and a state of emergency occurs”.

READ ALSO: LATEST: The Covid rules across Austria

At the same time, he reiterated that the pandemic is not over and that when the government removed the mask mandate, it also announced the rules could be brought back in autumn.

“When the mask requirement was abolished in grocery stores and public transport in the spring, I already said: If it should become necessary again in the autumn, the general mask requirement will be reintroduced there”, he said.