Austria extends Covid regulations as experts warn of autumn resurgence

Even as most Covid restrictions have been lifted in the alpine country, the government has extended the Covid-19 Measures Act until June 2023.

People line up to be tested for Covid-19 in Austria
Austrian scientists have identified five possible scenarios for the Covid-19 pandemic in the winter. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Austria’s Covid Measures Act has been extended until the middle of 2023, rather than expiring at the end of June 22nd.

The extension was decided on Wednesday in the National Council – with only the opposition parties FPÖ and NEOS opposing the measure.

Even though the country has lifted most Covid measures, including mandatory use of FFP2 masks and even lockdowns, the law provides the legal basis for them. This means that the government will still be able to bring back measures such as restrictions on gatherings and lockdowns to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

READ ALSO: UPDATED: The latest coronavirus restrictions in Austria

Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said during the parliament meeting it was necessary to extend the legislation as a precautionary measure in case there was another Covid surge in the autumn.

Rauch defended adjustments to the testing and vaccination strategy and preparation with sufficient medicines for the coming months.

Even if the situation is currently “very good”, as many people have recovered, the minister pleaded for the booster vaccination in the autumn.

“The good protection provided by vaccination will decrease at a time when a wave must be expected again”, he warned.

Fears of an autumn wave

The extension comes as a preparation for a much-feared Autumn wave, with experts alerting that cases may soar again as vaccine (and infection) immunity goes down.

Austrian virologists have shared their concerns in local media and on social media.

Immunologist Andres Bergthaler from the Medical University of Vienna shared a working paper calling for readiness for the autumn and winter months.

In the paper, several Austrian researchers ask for a strategy to maintain and, if necessary, expand testing capabilities and vaccination offers.

However, they add that the vaccine mandate should only be brought back in the “most unfavourable scenario”.

Austria has suspended its mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law, as reported, stating that the “less severe” Omicron wave and lowering numbers did not justify the implementation. However, the law is set to be reevaluated in May.

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

Covid numbers

On Wednesday, April 27th, Austria reported 8,239 new coronavirus infections after 240,426 PCR-Tests, according to the Health Ministry.

The country has 1,452 people hospitalised with Covid-19, 37 fewer than the day before, and 111 people were being treated in intensive care units. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Austria registered 18,100 deaths due to the disease.

Some 68 per cent of the total population have a valid vaccination certificate, and 54.6 per cent have received the third dose of the Covid vaccine.

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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.