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COVID-19 STATS

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
As new variants raise concerns, Austria is keeping its mask mandate. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

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.

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COVID-19 ALERT

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.

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