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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Will Austria bring back its mask mandate before autumn?

As Covid-19 infection numbers continue rising, Austria's government doesn't rule out a comeback of the mask requirement.

Will Austria bring back its mask mandate before autumn?

Austria has seen rising Covid-19 numbers for weeks, and the country’s traffic light commission has increased the risk rating of all federal states, with none currently designated as “low risk”.

Virologists and health experts have given many explanations for rising numbers and forecast that new infections, currently at more than 12,000 a day, could reach more than 30,000 in the next few weeks.

Austria’s Covid commission said that the omicron subvariant BA.4/BA.5 is a decisive factor in the increase, as it is considered more infectious. “Additionally, an increased proportion of travel-associated cases has been observed in recent weeks”, the commission stated.

READ ALSO: LATEST: These are the Covid rules in Austria and Vienna from June 2022

Dorothee von Laer, a Med-Uni Innsbruck virologist, told Der Standard that the new subvariant could be responsible for a new wave as “the protection we have from BA1 infections, and from vaccinations, is not so good against BA.4/BA.5”.

“So people who were infected early on, or who are only vaccinated, have of course some protection against hospitalisation, but almost no or very little protection against infection”, she said.

Von Laer mentioned other factors that likely contributed to the increasing numbers, including the fact that people have stopped wearing masks after the requirement was dropped in most of Austria.

Are masks about to make a comeback?

When Austria’s federal government announced they would drop the Covid mask mandate, they phrased it as a “pause” to the FFP2 masks, which were still mandatory in essential trade and public transport.

Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said that the mask requirement will be “paused”, as the pandemic is not over yet, and that people should be prepared for a resumption of the rules after summer, as The Local reported.

BACKGROUND: Austria to ‘pause’ Covid mask mandate from June 1st

Many experts believe FFP2 masks won’t be optional for long if numbers continue rising. Von Laer said, “we will probably have to resort to the mask again, even if the hospitals are not overcrowded because we want to protect the vulnerable people”.

The health minister had already stated that it is time people “take personal responsibility” so that they choose to wear masks in crowds or when close to vulnerable people.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

However, he recently added that if the situation “goes in the direction of overloading the health system, then, of course, I am also obliged to react”.

The minister also said he reassesses the situation every week, observing developments in other countries.

‘We will have to learn’

For Rauch, people will need to learn to live with the masks, as future waves can also be expected in the coming years. He added that we would have to learn to take personal responsibility, make self-assessments, and have solidarity.

READ ALSO: Austria sees scores of flight cancellations after airline staff contact Covid

He also assumes more flexible measures in the future. For example, public transport signs will ask for the mask mandate during morning traffic hours, but not on empty evening trains.

His goal, the minister stated, was to find a middle ground between demanding as few restrictions as possible and exercising caution.

Covid-19 stats

Austria on Wednesday reported 12,509 new coronavirus infections after 169,948 PCR tests, according to the Health Ministry.

There were 856 people in hospitals with Covid-19 and 47 in intensive care. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 18,779 people have died from the disease.

The country has just over 61 percent of its population with a valid vaccination pass.