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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Ba.4 and Ba.5 Covid variants detected in Austria: What you need to know

Austria has detected new subvariants Ba.4 and Ba.5, with cases reported in Vienna, Styria and Salzburg so far.

Ba.4 and Ba.5 Covid variants detected in Austria: What you need to know

The pandemic is not over, as we repeatedly hear the Austrian authorities saying. The news that sub-variants of the coronavirus have been found in the country has led to some concern.

Here is what we know so far about the pandemic situation in Austria.

New variants BA.4 and BA.5 in Austria

Austrian media reported that the new Covid-19 sub-variants known as BA.4 and BA.5 have been detected for the first time in the country.

The city of Vienna has reported its first cases to the Ministry of Health, and some individual cases were also identified in Styria and Salzburg. 

READ ALSO: UPDATED: The latest coronavirus restrictions in Austria

Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said that the omicron sub-variants provide slightly more infections than the currently dominant variant BA.2. There is a suspicion that they could be better at avoiding the body’s current antibody defences against Covid-19.

However, this is viewed as a sign that the current downward trend seen in the number of infections could slow down, but not that it would stop or that the infection rate would go up again. 

There is also no indication so far that the variants first identified in South Africa create a more severe disease course. 

Should we be concerned? 

Not according to specialists. Health authorities in Austria are “monitoring the situation very closely, but it doesn’t worry us at the moment”, Mario Dujakovic, spokesman for the Vienna Health City Councillor, said.

READ ALSO: Five possible winter scenarios for Covid-19 in Austria

“There is currently nothing to suggest that we should be concerned, but it certainly makes sense to keep a close eye on things. So we will continue to do this: monitor the situation closely and decide together with experts what to do if the worst comes to the worst. “, he said.

He also shared a graph showing that wastewater analyses all over Austria have come back with less viral material – a sign that the virus is less prevalent overall, new mutations or not.

Mask obligation to stay at least until July 8th

Austria currently has very few coronavirus restrictions in place. However, there are 3G (vaccinated, recovered, or tested) rules for entry in the country, some measures for visitation to hospitals and care units, and, most generally felt by the broader population, a mask mandate in some indoor areas.

READ ALSO: Austria to keep masks only in ‘essential places’ from April 16th

Those who visit or work in essential trade, such as supermarkets and pharmacies, still have to wear FFP2 masks in these establishments. In addition, the mask mandate is still in place for hospitals, care homes, public transport and their stops, taxis, and government authorities, among a few others.

These requirements have been criticised, as The Local reported. The Austrian Chamber of Commerce called for an end to the requirement and complained about the “unfair” restriction, which falls only to those dealing with essential trade. 

Since April 16th, the federal government has lifted the mask requirements for most indoor areas, including non-essential trade. 

READ ALSO: Austria extends Covid regulations as experts warn of an autumn resurgence

However, Health Minister Johannes Rauch has already rejected the demand, at least for the time being. The minister said that the uniform regulations, including the FFP2 mask obligation, should stay in place at least until July 8th. 

He mentioned that it is important to be “vigilant”, especially concerning the newly emerging omicron variants and possible development. 

Numbers are falling but expected to stabilise

Austria this Thursday reported 5,755 new infections after 157,301 PCR-Tests, according to the Health Ministry.

There are currently 1,077 people hospitalised with Covid-19, 34 fewer than in the previous 24 hours. Additionally, 84 people are in intensive care units due to the disease. 

READ ALSO: Austria recommends Covid booster shot for children aged five and over

The alpine country has recorded 18,222 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, 22 in the last 24 hours.

Just about 68 per cent of the population has a valid vaccination certificate for Covid-19 vaccines, and 54.9 per cent have had their booster shot. 

The Ministry expects that soon the number of cases in Austria will stop falling and gradually reach a stabilisation period, Der Standard reported. Also, in a few days, less than 1,000 corona-infected people would need intensive care or regular beds because of the disease.