Austria considers another hard lockdown as infection rates reach 'highest level in 2021'

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Austria considers another hard lockdown as infection rates reach 'highest level in 2021'
A sign on a window says 'closed'. Photo: Tobias Schwarz / AFP

Austria on Wednesday reported its highest tally of new coronavirus infections in 2021, with 3,239 - 700 higher than the day before. Austrian media reports that another hard lockdown is again on the table.


When combined with dwindling capacity in ICUs and hospitals, it appears almost certain that the lockdown will be extended beyond March 27th. 

In addition to the 3,239 new infections, Austrian officials recorded 30 deaths over the 24-hour period to Wednesday. 

The rates have been gradually increasing since lockdown measures were relaxed on February 8th. The 3000 infections mark was broken on Friday and Saturday. 

During last week 18,498 people were infected with coronavirus, an average of 2,643 every day. The seven-day incidence, or number of coronavirus infections per 100,000 population has risen from 176 to 208 within one week.

According to Austria’s Heute newspaper, not only are the planned openings for March 27th in jeopardy, but the government is currently considering the reimplementation of harsher measures. 

On February 8th, Austria relaxed several coronavirus measures including making the the 24-hour stay at home order only apply at night and allowing non-essential shops to open and face-to-face lessons in schools. 


What about intensive care beds?

While infection rates have been rising since the start of February, it’s the spike in intensive care unit (ICU) admissions which is now the major cause for concern.

The situation is particularly severe in Burgenland, Vienna and Upper Austria, where 60 percent of the 373 occupied beds for coronavirus sufferers can be found.

"It looks like the number of occupied intensive care beds will be greater than in previous waves," said Nina Brenner-Küng, spokesperson for the Vienna Health Association.


Non-ICU beds also filling up

Non-ICU beds are also filling up - with 1,395 occupied as at Monday, an increase of 94 on the previous day’s figures.

Operations in Vienna are likely to be postponed soon in order to expand ICU capacities. Public hospitals have already started to cooperate with private and religious hospitals in order to get operations done.

The following graphic shows the situation in terms of hospital beds and in ICUs in Austria. 

Statistik: Auslastungsgrad der für Corona-Patienten bereitgestellten Normal- und Intensivbetten in Österreich seit April (Stand: 16. März 2021, 00:00 CEST) | Statista
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Which states are hardest hit? 

According to official figures, ICU bed usage is highest in Burgenland, where more than two thirds are full as at March 16th. 


Vienna and Lower Austria also have a high occupancy rate, with 47.3 and 45.5 percent respectively. 

Vorarlberg has an ICU bed occupancy rate of only 3 percent. 

Why are infection rates and hospitalisations on the rise?

Although it is impossible to know exactly why hospital beds are filling up, the simple reason is that infection rates are rising again.

There are two primary reasons for this: the relaxation of the strict lockdown rules on February 8th and the British variant.

Hospitalisations of all kinds have been accelerated by the spread of the British coronavirus mutation throughout Austria.

A recent study from Denmark said that not only is the British variant more contagious, but it gets people sicker than known variants.

According to the study, cases of the British variant lead to a 64 percent higher risk of hospital stays than known variants.

Tyra Grove Krause, the technical director of the Danish Health Service Center, said "our numbers point in the same direction as several other studies from the UK showing that B.1.1.7 may cause more serious disease."

Another study from the journal Nature Medicine found that the variant had a 64 percent higher risk of death than other known variants.

Community testing tends to pick up more low risk cases, but the researchers said that if the findings were able to be generalised to other populations, the variant has the "potential to cause substantial additional mortality compared with previously circulating variants".

Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading, said the increased lethality added to its faster spread meant that "this version of the virus presents a substantial challenge to healthcare systems and policy makers. "It also makes it even more important people get vaccinated when called," he added.

Austria’s Der Standard newspaper reports that the hospitalisation rates are highest in the states where the British mutation has been present for the longest period of time.


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