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COVID-19

Salzburg and Upper Austria to go into full Covid lockdown

The regions of Salzburg and Upper Austria will introduce a lockdown for the entire population starting on Monday, which regional leaders said would last for "several weeks" but would hopefully be over by Christmas.

Salzburg and Upper Austria to go into full Covid lockdown
Salzburg and Upper Austria will place their entire populations under lockdown for "several weeks", regional leaders confirmed. Photo: Mylène Larnaud/Unsplash

There is no longer any alternative than to order a full lockdown in the region, Salzburg’s governor Wilfried Haslauer told a press conference on Thursday afternoon.

“We have considered a lockdown to be a significant infringement on the public, but now we are left with no other choice,” he said.

The length of the lockdown is not yet confirmed, but Haslauer said it would last at least three weeks, and most likely four. As in previous lockdowns, it would be possible to leave home only for essential purposes including food shopping, exercise, and accessing medical care including vaccinations. Hotels, restaurants and retail stores will close.

He urged everyone in the region who is eligible to get their first vaccine doses as well as boosters, “so that we can get out of this lockdown as soon as possible, before Christmas if at all possible”. Salzburg this week followed Vienna in making booster doses possible from four months after the second dose.

Haslauer also said that all municipalities in Salzburg would be offering vaccination seven days a week.

He noted that as of Monday, Salzburg already has the strictest measures in Austria, but said: “The time it takes for these to take effect is time that our hospitals do not have.”

“Lockdown is an effective short-term measure, but it is not a solution. Vaccination is the only solution,” he said.

During the lockdown, schools will also be closed with a return to home-learning, although students with additional learning needs or who need to go to school (for example if their parents work in essential jobs) will still be able to attend in-person.

As of Thursday afternoon, Salzburg has 31 Covid-19 patients receiving intensive care treatment in hospital, 27 of them unvaccinated, said Christian Stöckl, the region’s deputy governor and health councillor. The remaining four all had a higher than average risk of illness from Covid-19 due to their age or health conditions.

Haslauer said that he preferred for consistent measures across the country, but would not comment on whether he wanted to see a nationwide lockdown, telling a reporter: “I would have preferred that we did not need this measure at all.”

Upper Austria governor Thomas Stelzer confirmed on Thursday morning that both regions would go into lockdown next week, regardless of what is decided on Friday for the national measures.

“We don’t have much leeway, to say the least. We have very, very little leeway,” Stelzer said.

“If there is no nationwide lockdown, Upper Austria and Salzburg will go into lockdown from next week,” said Stelzer, adding that he would advocate for the measure to be imposed nationwide at Friday’s meeting between the government and regional leaders.

Stelzer did not give a specific timeframe for the lockdown, but said that it would last for multiple weeks. A press conference was scheduled for 5.30pm.

The announcement comes as Austria is in the first week of a nationwide ten-day lockdown for people without 2G (proof of either full vaccination against Covid-19 or recent recovery from the virus). This partial lockdown is enforced with police patrols, but has been criticised as being divisive and difficult to control.

The Green Party in Salzburg have called for a full lockdown in the region, as have several intensive care doctors, due to the severe level of the spread of the virus.

In Vienna, which has the country’s lowest incidence rate but is still classed as “very high risk” by the Corona Commission, mayor Michael Ludwig said on Wednesday afternoon that he “could not rule out” another lockdown.

“I don’t want [Vienna] to end up in the same situation as other regions,” Ludwig told reporters when asked about a possible general lockdown.

On Thursday, Austria reported 15,145 new cases of Covid-19 in the past 24 hours, reaching another all-time high.

Covid-19 in Austria: Follow the latest developments as they happen

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COVID-19 STATS

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.

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