Austria to extend coronavirus lockdown measures

Austria on Monday decided to extend its coronavirus lockdown until after Easter.

Austria to extend coronavirus lockdown measures
Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Leaders of state and federal governments met in Vienna on Monday to discuss the country’s coronavirus lockdown plans. 

The government announced late on Monday that planned relaxations of lockdown measures from Saturday, March 27th, would not go ahead. 

The existing lockdown measures will remain in place across the country until at least after Easter. 

However, from April onwards, Austria will adopt a regional approach which allows certain regions with lower infection rates and hospitalisations to open up. 

EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s current coronavirus lockdown rules?

The announcement will not affect the western state of Vorarlberg, where a range of lockdown measures were relaxed on March 15th. 

Contrary to previous reports, Austria did not put in place any specific loosening of the measures for the Easter period.

Austrian media had reported in the lead up to the announcement that the government may adopt temporary relaxations to the rules to allow Easter gatherings, however these appear to have been rejected by the government. 

The government indicated that infection rates and hospitalisations were too high at the present moment to allow a relaxation of the measures. 

READ MORE: How does Austria decide whether to tighten or loosen coronavirus measures?

What is the current situation in Austria?

In Austria, the number of occupied intensive care beds is now around 400. This corresponds to a little more than 40 percent of the total available capacity.

According to calculations by the experts, this number will rise to 515 by the end of March.

This may not seem so bad. However, looking at the national picture is slightly misleading, as there are big differences between the east of Austria and the west.

In the east, hospitals are getting close to the levels seen last autumn, when Austria went into its second lockdown.

MAPS: Where are Austria’s hospitals under the most pressure?

In Vienna, ICU beds are at their highest rate of occupancy since the pandemic begun.

In Austria, the seven-day incidence is over 230, rising to over 300 in the east. 

However, even in Vienna (314), politicians are calling for pub gardens and restaurant terraces to open.  

Neighbouring Germany is discussing lockdown measures until after Easter because its seven-day incidence, or the number of new infections per 100,000 people over a seven day period, has now exceeded 100.

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UPDATED: 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.

UPDATED: 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 in recent weeks, with 2,428 people currently hospitalised with the disease, including 118 in intensive care (ICU).

One month ago, just 871 people were being treated in hospital with an additional 47 people in ICU.

The Austrian Federal Government has now said they will make a decision on bringing back the mask mandate by October 23rd. Last week, the National Covid Crisis Coordination (GECKO) recommended wearing FFP2 masks.

According to ORF, the mask mandate could return for public indoor spaces, public transport and in the gastronomy sector. The Austrian Trade Association has already rejected the suggestion saying it would be the “last straw” for employees as the industry struggles with staff shortages.

What are the Covid-19 experts predicting for the autumn and winter season?

The latest report from the Covid prognosis consortium in Austria predicts a rise in hospitalisations in October. 

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.