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The spread of Covid in Austria is a warning to the world


At the university hospital Salzburg, intensive care doctor Andreas Kokofer has been watching the escalation of Covid-19 infections with grim inevitability. With cases reaching a daily record high of 15,809 on November 19, Kokover and colleagues are preparing for an influx of patients.

The state of Salzburg is a particular hotspot for the current outbreak, with 1,731 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, compared to 1,110 across Austria as a whole. With the situation expected to worsen in the coming weeks, hospital officials across the region are beginning to consider the possibility of making tough decisions about which Covid-19 patients will qualify for intensive care, and which ones do not.

So how did Austria end up in such a dangerous predicament, while so many countries are planning exit strategies for the pandemic? The reasons are manifold, from low levels of immunity to a social and cultural storm, driven by long-standing political divisions, which have led many Austrians to reject Covid-19 vaccines.

Crucially, what Austria is experiencing could soon afflict dozens of other countries – all due to an uneasy balance of numbers. With the crisis threatening to spiral out of control, Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg was forced to make a decision that had seemed out of the question a few weeks earlier. As of Monday, the country went into a month-long national lockdown, bringing back restrictions that many had hoped could be removed for good. Just as in 2020, Austrian residents were asked to stay at home and only leave the house for essential purposes. Schools remain open, although parents are asked to keep their children at home if possible.

The decision was met with anger in some parts of the country. Last weekend, 40,000 people took to the streets in Vienna, some carrying provocative banners likening Schallenberg to Nazi leaders.

But while doctors say the current crisis cannot be compared to the early days of the pandemic, they remain deeply concerned about how the health care system will cope over the coming weeks. “The situation is tight,” Kokoover says. We have to cancel the planned cancer and heart surgeries. The lockdown gives us some hope that the numbers will reach a level where they stabilize.”

While these new restrictions affected many people in Austria unexpectedly, experts say the crisis has been brewing for some time. According to Eva Shernhammer, an epidemiologist at the Medical University of Vienna, the onset of winter and the movement of people indoors facilitated the spread of Covid-19. Immunity levels also began to decline among those vaccinated earlier in the year, making them more susceptible to the delta variant.

Shernhammer suspects this is a problem specific to Austria, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe: 65.7 percent of the population is under arrest, a rate lower than that of the United Kingdom (68.7 percent), France, Italy and Germany. By comparison, Portugal has one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, with 86.9 percent of its population fully immunized. As of November 22, the daily number of Covid-19 cases per million people was 145 in Portugal, compared to 1,527 in Austria.

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