How Covid absences are disrupting Austrian hospitals, schools and transport

As people self-isolate or quarantine due to the coronavirus, essential services suffer with staff shortages.

A health worker prepares a coronavirus antigen rapid test at the new coronavirus test center in the Orangery of the Schoenbrunn Palace. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)
A health worker prepares a coronavirus antigen rapid test at the coronavirus test center in the Orangery of the Schönbrunn Palace. Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP.

Austria this Wednesday recorded 53,071 new cases of coronavirus infections.

There are currently more than 430,000 active cases in the country, meaning that almost half a million people are self-isolating or hospitalised due to the virus.

A number of close contacts, or people who have symptoms, are also considered suspected cases and need to quarantine at home, waiting for the results of a PCR test. And people may also need to stay at home when they are the caretaker of those who are sick.

Health authorities in the alpine country have consistently reiterated that despite rising numbers, the situation in hospitals and intensive care units is not concerning.

Moreover, with the population mostly vaccinated, cases have been less severe.

Currently, 3,266 are hospitalised with the virus, and 227 are treated in intensive care. But the sheer number of new infections, more than 50,000 every day, has started affecting Austrian essential services.

READ ALSO: Covid-19: What to do if you test positive in Austria

Hospital shortages

In hospitals, the effects have brought health institutions to their limits.

In Salzburg state clinics, the situation was exacerbated by many patients needing to receive medical care after ski accidents, Der Standard reported.

Some clinics, including Schwarzach, had decided to postpone planned operations, as 80 of the 1,500 employees were in quarantine. Likewise, Barmherzigen Brüder hospital closed beds due to staff shortages.

In Tirol, the number of sick leave had doubled due to the omicron wave, spokesman Johannes Schwamberger told the daily. He added that many people need to stay at home to care for sick children. The hospital board has started expecting these parents to fall ill a few days later.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Austria’s new Covid-19 testing rules

The same has been happening in Styria, where non-urgent procedures have been postponed due to the lack of staff and other states in Austria. In the capital Vienna, Health Secretary Peter Hacker (SPÖ) said last Friday that 10 percent of the hospital staff were on sick leave, around half of them due to corona.

Public transport and schools also affected

The shortages also have strained services such as public transport throughout Austria.

In Vienna, the city’s public transport operator Wiener Linien this Wednesday announced that the interval for several tram lines would be adjusted to accommodate staff shortages.

Starting Monday, tram lines 1, 5, 10, 33, 37, 42, 44, and 52 would be operating on a limited timetable similar to the holiday plans. There are no estimated dates for the resumption of regular operation.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s current Covid rules?

In Graz, cases of Covid among staff have also led the city line to make changes to the timetables. Starting Thursday, 24, a new schedule, based on holiday times, but with a focus on hospital and school lines, will be adopted.

“This is required due to corona-related staff shortages”, the company that runs public transport in the city, Graz Holding, said.

Schools have also suffered from staff shortages, with many having to improvise, Die Presse reported. For example, a school in Wels, with 30 teachers, saw 10 of them having to stay at home, primarily due to contracting Covid themselves.

Record number of cases

Austria has been reaching record numbers of new cases consistently in the last few weeks, and some measures have already been taken to try and halt the virus.

Last week, the federal government said it would reintroduce mandatory FFP2 masks for indoor areas.

To face the issue of staff shortages, especially in essential sectors such as health care, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) also said special quarantine rules and regulations were being devised. However, he didn’t give much detail.

READ ALSO: Almost 60,000: Austria hits record daily Covid case total

New regulations are expected to be introduced stating that infected personnel in the health sector may work under certain conditions, though the specific rules would be up to the states.

Useful vocabulary

Personalengpass – personnel shortage
Belastungsgrenze – limit
Gesundheitspersonal – health personnel
Straßenbahnbetrieb – tram operation
​​Ferienfahrplan – holiday schedule

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Could Austria be spared another wave of Covid this winter?

Specialists in Austria - and worldwide - can't agree if the Covid-19 pandemic is nearing its end, and many remain cautious. Here's what you need to know.

Could Austria be spared another wave of Covid this winter?

The World Health Organisation’s head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said that the pandemic was not over yet, but that “the end is in sight”. Similarly, US President Joe Biden stated: “The pandemic is over, but we still have a problem with Covid.”

In Austria, experts are cautiously optimistic. Dorothee von Laer, a virologist at the Medical University of Innsbruck, said: “A pandemic is over when a high level of immunity has built up in the population, and that is probably the case everywhere in the world except in China”, Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard reported.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get the new adapted Covid-19 vaccine in Austria

Herwig Kollaritsch, infectologist and member of Austria’s national vaccination panel (NIG), has a similar view. “We are increasingly getting into a somewhat better situation because the immunity level in the population is rising due to many vaccinations and infections.”

Though he is more cautious: “We have always had problems due to a change of variants, and even now, we are absolutely not safe from surprises”.

New variants

The biggest fear ahead of winter is precisely that: a change of variants, specialists say. Especially since more and more omicron mutations are being found and they can circumvent the immune defences quite well, Ulrich Elling, a molecular biologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, told Der Standard.

However, since all the current mutations are still omicron variants, the severe courses of the disease continue to be rare.

READ ALSO: Reader question: When should I get a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Austria?

“We still use hospitalisation and death rates as parameters. So when it comes to that, we are out of the woods. But still, a lot of people will get sick – not very seriously, but they will get sick,” Kollaritsch said.

Elling agrees: “Of course, statements about the supposed end of the pandemic are striking a chord with people at the moment. We all want it to be over. Nevertheless, the numbers will rise again. Above all, the new variants escape our immune response more than any other variant before.”

For him, it’s wrong to say that the pandemic is over or that there won’t be a new infection wave in winter. Even though they may be of milder courses of the disease, the virus is still out there and will infect people in the coming months, he believes.

READ ALSO: From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season