Today in Austria: A round-up of the latest news on Thursday

Find out what's going on in Austria today with The Local's short round-up of the news.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz

Austria ‘reaching intensive care capacity’ in hospitals

Meduni Vienna researcher Peter Klimek has said Austria is moving towards the limits of its capacity in the intensive care sector in an interview with Vienna Today.

Klimek says the situation will only relax when a high percentage of the population at risk has been vaccinated, which could be done by the end of April, ORF reports. He also says the Easter holidays could be extended to create a natural lockdown.

The researcher adds while in principle, Austria could open more with accompanying protective measures, but says this  would possibly send the wrong signal at the moment.

ORF quotes Klimek as saying: “It’s nice to be able to give people who are already meeting each other a safe place. But it is all the more problematic if you set an incentive for it and also give the signal that more contacts are now possible again.”

Around 3,239 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday

The Ministry of Health reported 3,239 new infections with the coronavirus on Wednesday. The seven day incidence, or the number of new infections with the coronavirus in the past seven days per 100,000 inhabitants, is 210.7.

The number is still highest in Salzburg (284.2) and Vienna (270.0). The value is lowest in Vorarlberg (57.9) and Tyrol (159.4).

Extra Pfizer/Biontech vaccines for Austria

Austria along with a number of other EU countries could receive extra Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines against COVID-19 in the near future.

The delivery is intended to compensate for the shortage that has occurred due to individual countries not ordering all available vaccines earlier, in autumn, when the initial procurement was made Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also sees a EU “correction mechanism” for vaccine distribution within reach, Wiener Zeitung reports. The final decision is yet to be made by the member states. 

AstraZeneca vaccine is safe, says Chancellor Kurz

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told the ZIB2 programme on Wednesday evening he expects the European Medicine Agency (EMA) will not advise countries to stop using the AstraZeneca vaccine, Der Standard newspaper reports.

He said the vaccine was “extremely relevant” for Europe and a stop “would be a massive setback”, and reiterated that he thinks Astra Zeneca is safe.

“Over 1,000 people die of corona in Europe every day. The danger is the virus and not the vaccination”, he said. The EMA is due to release its findings over the AstraZeneca vaccine today.

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Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.