EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?

Austria's mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law has been surrounded by controversies and a nationwide suspension, but there are indications it may be on its way back soon.

EXPLAINED: What are Austria's plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?
Medical personnel is given the Pfizer-Biontech Covid-19 corona virus vaccine at the Favoriten Clinic in Vienna, Austria, on December 27, 2020 on the occasion of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 corona virus vaccine rollout. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / various sources / AFP)

Even as the number of new coronavirus infections steadily drops in Austria, the country has resumed talks of a Covid-19 vaccine mandate – perhaps not for all citizens, but for some.

Several of Austria’s leading experts have been public about their view that the country should “protect those particularly at risk” ahead of what they view as a likely autumn wave.

Virologist Dorothee von Laer, who has become one of the most widely recognised specialists during the pandemic, has made it clear that compulsory vaccination for those over 60-years-old might be needed if vaccination rates don’t go up in the next few weeks.

READ ALSO: Austria to keep masks only in ‘essential places’ from April 17th

The goal of a vaccine mandate for this group would be to prevent the overload of the health system, as 90 per cent of hospitalised and deceased are over 60, she told the Austrian parliament during a hearing on Covid measures, Der Standard reported.

Vaccine mandate for ‘at risk’ patients

Dr. von Laer is not alone. Also at the hearing and defending a compulsory vaccination for at-risk patients was lawyer Christiane Druml, chairperson of the Bioethics Commission and one of the members of Austria’s GECKO commission – a group of specialists tasked with assessing the pandemic situation and possible measures.

Druml said that compulsory vaccination is also the most extreme measure. Still, vaccination shouldn’t be seen as a private matter. She highlighted that the “principle of solidarity” should be taken into account when it comes to vaccination.

The bioethics expert advised that compulsory vaccination should apply to groups such as health professionals, people over 60 and high-risk patients of all ages, according to statements given to the newspaper Kurier.

Revaluation of the mandate is coming up

Austria’s mandatory vaccination law received presidential approval in early February and came into force. However, as support dwindled, other countries failed to institute similar measures, and vaccination rates continued to stall; the law was suspended just days before a new stage was set to start, one that would have unvaccinated people receive fines at random checks.

READ ALSO: Austria to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations

The official reason for the suspension, Constitutional Minister Karoline Edstadler (ÖVP) announced in early March, as that the “burden on fundamental rights” of such a measure was not “necessary” at the time, as the omicron wave of the coronavirus resulted in fewer severe cases.

The law itself provided for a suspension, and Health Minister Johannes Ruach (Greens) explained concerns about new variants and seasonal spikes in new infections as winter approaches could lead to a change in policy.

Additionally, experts would have to consider that measures commonly taken to halt the spread of the virus, from mandatory masks to lockdowns, might not be well received after two years of pandemic and summer, basically without any restrictions.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Austria’s vaccine mandate will work

Rauch said that the Austrian vaccination committee would meet again this May to report back to the government to make a new decision over compulsory vaccination.

“Vaccination protects”

Even as the vaccination mandate is seen as a “last resort”, doctors and specialists continue to plead with the Austrian population to get vaccinated.

Health Minister Rauch, on several occasions, reiterated: “the vaccine works, and the vaccine protects”, asking people who haven’t received any vaccination to get their shot and those who haven’t taken their booster to protect themselves.

READ ALSO: Why are the numbers of fully-vaccinated people going down in Austria?

Austria currently has 68.46 per cent of its population fully vaccinated. As more people let their Covid passes expire without taking the third dose, the number decreases. Just under 76 per cent of the population has at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, and 54.4 per cent have received the third dose.

On Thursday, April 21st, the country reported 11,948 new coronavirus infections. A total of 1,704 people were hospitalised with the virus, 172 fewer than the day before, and 130 were in intensive care units.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 17,057 people have died from Covid-19 in Austria.

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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.