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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.