Is Austria heading for a summer Covid wave and could face masks return?
With Covid-19 case numbers rising in Austria, experts and authorities are on alert for what might happen over the coming weeks.
Austria on Wednesday recorded 6,869 new coronavirus infections, more than double the amount it recorded the week before.
The Austrian Covid commission's latest forecast stated that the increase is part of a trend observed for the past two weeks and expected it to continue. According to the projections, the number of daily new cases could surpass 10,000 by next week.
It is still far from the record 60,000 daily infections recorded last spring, but the upwards trend is enough to concern specialists and health authorities in the country.
Why are the Covid-19 numbers rising?
The commission said that the omicron subvariant BA.4/BA.5 is a decisive factor in the increase, as it is considered more infectious - and is expected to become dominant in the coming week.
"Additionally, an increased proportion of travel-associated cases has been observed in recent weeks", the commission said. It added that "an influence of recent major events cannot be ruled out either", a likely reference to the war in Ukraine and a large influx of refugees from the country.
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. So we will likely have a wave before autumn", 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.
She also cited that "recent rainy days" led to more people being indoors. "I believe there are many different factors that come together".
Will the Covid-19 restrictions return?
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".
Other measures such as social distance and hygiene protocols should also return, she added.
"But I don't think we will need stricter measures. We need to follow the situation, but it looks good. We will have a new omicron vaccine in the next weeks that we can count on", according to the virologist.
Should I get a fourth Covid vaccination?
There is currently no consensus on when to get a fourth Covid shot, also known as a "second booster". Austria’s National Vaccination Committee (NIG) has recommended a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, but only for those deemed at risk of serious illness.
The NIG identifies risk groups as people over 80 and those between the ages of 65 and 79 with a weakened immune system or existing health conditions.
The committee is considering lowering the recommended age to 65, even for people with no other health conditions.
Clinical pharmacologist Markus Zeitlinger from MedUni Vienna told Kurier that he believes anyone who wants maximum immune protection at all times should get a vaccination now – children excluded. He said since there will be a summer wave, people shouldn’t wait to get protected.
Zeitlinger mentioned there is medically no reason not to get vaccinated in June and then again as early as October.
Von Laer views it differently. In her opinion, as the numbers rise, anyone who has not been vaccinated or has had three vaccinations but belongs to the vulnerable group should get the fourth dose in the coming weeks.
"I think those who are not vulnerable and have been vaccinated three times can wait until the adapted vaccine is licensed. We expect the new vaccine to come in September", she said.