Austria rules out further tightening of Covid measures – yet

Following two meetings of the Committee of the National Covid Crisis Coordination (GECKO) on Monday, further restrictions in Austria have been ruled out, although tighter rules may be on the horizon.

A woman walks past a closed restaurant at the Naschmarkt market in Vienna, Austria, on November 17, 2020.  (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)
A woman walks past a closed restaurant at the Naschmarkt market in Vienna, Austria, on November 17, 2020. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

The Omicron variant and the general Covid-19 situation in Austria were the main topics of conversation at the GECKO meeting on Monday.

In the morning, laboratory operators, the army and representatives from the federal states attended a virtual “test summit” to discuss how tests can be carried out more effectively nationwide and how testing infrastructure can be expanded.

FOR MEMBERS: UPDATED: What are the rules for entering Austria right now?

GECKO leaders Major General Rudolf Striedinger and Chief Medical Officer Katharina Reich were in attendance, as well as Thomas Starlinger from the Covid-19 Future Operations Clearing Board. 

According to ORF, Michael Havel, CEO of Lifebrain laboratory in Vienna (who was also in attendance), said Lifebrain’s testing capabilities could be expanded at short notice to evaluate test results from other Austrian states if needed.

Havel recommended building two to three new large testing centres and that Lifebrain is ready to invest €60 to €70 million into such facilities. However, any decisions on expanding testing infrastructure have to be made by the federal government.

READ MORE: What will happen with the pandemic in Austria in 2022?

On Monday evening, GECKO attendees then discussed whether the current restrictions are enough to cope with the increasing number of Omicron cases and the expected wave in January.

There is currently no new information for the public and any recommendations made by the experts on Monday will be considered by the federal government. If restrictions are to be tightened again in the new year, the government will make an announcement in the coming days.

New Covid-19 rules now in force in Austria

On Monday December 27th, a new curfew came into effect which means the gastronomy sector in Austria (including in hotels) must now close at 10pm. This includes New Year’s Eve.

Private gatherings of up to 25 people with 2G proof will be permitted, but if they are indoor and without assigned seating, FFP2 masks are compulsory, and the authorities requested that people reduce their contacts as much as possible.

If assigned seating is available, the maximum number of people rises to 500 if everyone has proof of 2G (full vaccination or recovery); 1,000 for 2G+ (full vaccination or recovery and a negative PCR test), and 2,000 if people have 2G+ and a booster dose. FFP2 masks will also be required.

READ MORE: How Austria’s Covid rules change today

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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.