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‘Reasonably optimistic’: Are Switzerland’s Covid hotspots cooling down at last?

Soaring infections but stable hospitalisation and death rates: this is what the epidemiological situation looks like this week across Switzerland.

A nurse sits on the floor at a hospital
Despite surging infections, Switzerland's hospitals have not seen a relative rise in admissions. Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

There is an obvious paradox in Switzerland’s coronavirus-related data: while the number of infections is record-high with over 38,000 new cases reported on Wednesday, most health experts draw a fairly upbeat picture of the pandemic’s evolution.

According to Virginie Masserey, head of the infection control section at the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH),  “we can be reasonably optimistic” that the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

In fact, with more people contracting the highly contagious Omicron virus, the level of immunity is growing within the population, signalling, as many epidemiologists believe, pandemic’s end .

READ MORE: When will the Covid pandemic end in Switzerland?

Also paradoxically, despite the record-breaking number of infections, the overall situation in terms of geographical distribution of cases looks better that last week’s.

The bulk of cases are now concentrated in Geneva, where the infection rate of 6,606.39 per 100,000 people exceeds the national average of 4,087.09 / 100,00, followed by Valais (6100.09).

But while the situation in French-speaking regions, as well as in Graubünden and Ticino, is still tense, infection rates in other cantons fall below the national average.

Image: FOPH

For comparison, this is what the situation looked like a week ago, on January 13th.

Image: FOPH

What about hospitalisations?

If health authorities are not panicking and, in fact, have just relaxed some measures, it is because the high infection rates are not reflected in the number of Covid-related hospital admissions.

Despite repeated warnings throughout November and December that the healthcare system was on the verge of being saturated and triage was imminent, this has not happened.

As at January 18th, there were 247 Covid patients in Swiss ICUs — 20 less than last week.

Image: FOPH

Health officials attribute this to the fact that Omicron, which currently accounts for nearly 88 percent of all infections in Switzerland, is less virulent than its predecessors Delta and Alpha, especially among the vaccinated population.

This means that vaccinated and boosted people are much less likely to have severe symptoms and end up in hospitals than their unvaccinated counterparts.

Image: FOPH

The same applies to Covid-related deaths: their number remains low and stable, but is most prevalent among the unvaccinated, as this chart indicates:

READ MORE: Covid in Switzerland: How common are hospitalisations and deaths among the boosted?

At this point, nearly 68 percent of Switzerland's population is fully vaccinated, with 35.47 percent having received the third shot — rates that still trail below the European Union average.

However, within the most vulnerable group — those over 65 years of age — 90.64 percent have had two shots, and 71.56 percent have had their booster dose as well.

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Europe faces ‘period of tranquility’ with end of pandemic in sight

Two years after the outbreak of Covid-19, Europe could soon enter a "long period of tranquility" due to high vaccination rates, the milder Omicron variant and the end of winter, the WHO said Thursday.

Europe faces 'period of tranquility' with end of pandemic in sight

WHO Europe director Hans Kluge said the respite was “a ceasefire that could bring us enduring peace”.

“This context leaves us with the possibility for a long period of tranquility,” he told reporters Thursday.

Widespread immunity from vaccines and infections, combined with the change of season, also puts Europe in a better position to fend off any resurgence in transmission he said.

“Even with a more virulent variant” than Omicron, Kluge said.

“It is possible to respond to new variants that will inevitably emerge — without re-installing the kind of disruptive measures we needed before”, Kluge said.

This was “not to say that (the pandemic) is now all over”, but “there is a singular opportunity to take control of the transmission”, he stressed.

He cautioned that the optimistic scenario would only hold true if countries continued their vaccination campaigns and intensified surveillance to detect new variants.

He also urged health authorities to protect risk groups and to promote individual responsibility, such as social distancing and mask wearing.  

‘Knock-on effect’

With the more contagious Omicron variant in circulation, infections have surged across the WHO’s European region, which comprises 53 countries, including some in central Asia.

Some 12 million new cases were registered last week in the region, according to the WHO, the highest level since the start of the pandemic.

But faced with a lower level of hospitalisations than in previous waves, several European countries, including France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, have announced the lifting or a considerable reduction of restrictions, despite record or very high cases.

Denmark on Tuesday became the first European Union country to lift its domestic Covid-19 restrictions, followed later in the day by Norway.

WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge (Photo by Alexander ASTAFYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP)

Speaking on the eve of World Cancer Day, Kluge also expressed concern over the “catastrophic impact” the pandemic has had on cancer care around the world.

In the last three months of 2021, cancer screenings and treatments were disrupted by five to 50 percent in all countries surveyed, he said.

“The situation has improved since the first quarter of last year,” he said.

“But the knock-on effect of this disruption will be felt for years.”

He urged Europe’s healthcare authorities to take advantage of the expected seasonal Covid lull to reduce backlogs in chronic  care services.