Record Covid case numbers: How close is Austria to a new lockdown?

With a skyrocketing number of cases since its "Freedom Day", several people have called for a reintroduction of safety measures

Peopele walk past Hofburg palace at Michaeler square in Vienna, Austria on November 22, 2021. - Austria has entered a nationwide lockdown in an effort to contain spiraling coronavirus infections. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)
Peopele walk past Hofburg palace at Michaeler square in Vienna, Austria on November 22, 2021. - Austria has entered a nationwide lockdown in an effort to contain spiraling coronavirus infections. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Less than a week since Austria’s ‘Freedom Day’ saw the relaxation of most Covid measures, case numbers are skyrocketing, and experts and politicians have argued for some restrictions to come back. The Health Ministry, however, does not want to introduce new restrictions.

For the last two days, Austria has had record Covid numbers, posting 47,795 new cases on Wednesday, 9, and again 49,432 new cases on Thursday. This Friday, the federal government announced 49,323 new infections in 24 hours.

Though the numbers in hospitals and intensive care units are not as dramatic, doctors have already issued warnings about the overworked and tired staff.

READ MORE: Austria hits daily record number of Covid cases

Medical Association Vice Harald Mayer told Austria’s Krone Zeitung newspaper, “we are running out of beds, some of the staff are exhausted and unnerved or infected, quit in rows or are looking for transfers”.

The rising numbers come just about a week after Austria had its “Freedom Day”, with most restrictions being lifted in the country. This week, the country also announced that the legal requirement to have the Covid-19 vaccine would not be implemented as planned, following a report by experts that it was “not proportionate” due to the milder Omicron strain of the virus.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s new Covid rules?

Criticism of the relaxations

Since March 5th, the “G” rules were removed in most of Austria, and clubs and venues reopened not only for vaccinated and recovered but for the unvaccinated as well. The mask mandate was also removed in most areas, except for “essential” places such as supermarkets and public transport.

Vienna did not follow suit, and the capital kept the 2G rule (vaccinated or recovered) for gastronomy and an FFP2 mask mandate for all indoor areas. 

The city’s Mayor Michael Ludwig was also one of the first to criticise reopening steps, both when he announced Vienna would not adopt the federal government’s reopening plans and when the country reported record infection numbers.

On Twitter, the SPÖ politician raised his concerns and called on the Health Ministry to “seriously deal with the high number of cases”. 

Ludwig pointed out that the country has record-level infection rates, saying removing restrictive measures was a mistake, and Vienna would keep following its “consistent path”.

Reversal path and preventive measures

Several specialists and politicians have called for some of the measures to be reinstated. 

Austria’s Corona Commission has recommended implementing some “preventive measures” to halt the rising numbers. However, the commission stopped short of mentioning “reintroduction” of measures and, so far, a new lockdown has not been suggested by experts.

Medical attorney Sigrid Pilz this Friday, 11, said in the Ö1 “Morning Journal”: “I don’t understand how you can’t see a need for action in the current situation.” She also criticised the suspension of the vaccination mandate, saying the move “creates uncertainty”. 

READ MORE: Could Austria’s mandatory Covid-19 vaccination return in autumn?

Sigrid Pilz advocates the introduction of a mask requirement in all indoor areas, including schools, work from home schemes where possible, and ventilation systems in public buildings.

Molecular biologist Ulrich Elling told Krone that masks were the “simplest and most effective measure for controlling infection dynamics” but had been “abandoned” by the government.  

“Masks should be compulsory”. 

Epidemiologist Eva Schernhammer warned that with such a high number of infections, the health system would very well be brought to its limits.

Health Ministry to stay on course

The Health Ministry, however, has decided not to turn on the reopening steps. 

“We must be cautious not to lose acceptance and understanding among the population. A tightening of the corona measures a few days after the extensive opening would not be possible to present to people”, he said, according to Die Presse.

The Ministry said that not only the new number of cases should be considered, but also the proportion of symptomatic patients and the burden on hospitals. 

49,323 new infections were recorded from Thursday to Friday, according to the health commission. This is above the average of the past seven days of 37,628.

27 more deaths related to the coronavirus in 24 hours have been reported. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have already been 15,163 deaths.

A total of 2,751 infected people were treated in the hospitals on Thursday. In addition, 176 patients were in intensive care units.

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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.