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COVID-19 STATS

Could Austria be spared another wave of Covid this winter?

Specialists in Austria - and worldwide - can't agree if the Covid-19 pandemic is nearing its end, and many remain cautious. Here's what you need to know.

People line up outside the Stadthalle city hall in Vienna, Austria to get tested for Covid. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)
People line up outside the Stadthalle city hall in Vienna, Austria to get tested for Covid. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

The World Health Organisation’s head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said that the pandemic was not over yet, but that “the end is in sight”. Similarly, US President Joe Biden stated: “The pandemic is over, but we still have a problem with Covid.”

In Austria, experts are cautiously optimistic. Dorothee von Laer, a virologist at the Medical University of Innsbruck, said: “A pandemic is over when a high level of immunity has built up in the population, and that is probably the case everywhere in the world except in China”, Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard reported.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get the new adapted Covid-19 vaccine in Austria

Herwig Kollaritsch, infectologist and member of Austria’s national vaccination panel (NIG), has a similar view. “We are increasingly getting into a somewhat better situation because the immunity level in the population is rising due to many vaccinations and infections.”

Though he is more cautious: “We have always had problems due to a change of variants, and even now, we are absolutely not safe from surprises”.

New variants

The biggest fear ahead of winter is precisely that: a change of variants, specialists say. Especially since more and more omicron mutations are being found and they can circumvent the immune defences quite well, Ulrich Elling, a molecular biologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, told Der Standard.

However, since all the current mutations are still omicron variants, the severe courses of the disease continue to be rare.

READ ALSO: Reader question: When should I get a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Austria?

“We still use hospitalisation and death rates as parameters. So when it comes to that, we are out of the woods. But still, a lot of people will get sick – not very seriously, but they will get sick,” Kollaritsch said.

Elling agrees: “Of course, statements about the supposed end of the pandemic are striking a chord with people at the moment. We all want it to be over. Nevertheless, the numbers will rise again. Above all, the new variants escape our immune response more than any other variant before.”

For him, it’s wrong to say that the pandemic is over or that there won’t be a new infection wave in winter. Even though they may be of milder courses of the disease, the virus is still out there and will infect people in the coming months, he believes.

READ ALSO: From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season

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COVID-19 RULES

Austria to drop all Covid restrictions by the end of June

Austria's government announced the country would be back to "normal operation" in July, including in the capital Vienna. Here's what this means.

Austria to drop all Covid restrictions by the end of June

On Wednesday, February 1st, Austria’s federal government announced it would end all Covid-19 crisis measures by the end of June.

In a press conference, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) explained that vaccinations, tests and medications would be integrated into the regular structures of the national health system. 

There will be no more free tests, except for people with symptoms and patients at risk, and those will be carried out only by family doctors or in hospitals. However, vaccination will remain free of charge and available at various points, including at family doctor’s offices. 

“The virus is here to stay, and we are preparing to live with it in the long term,” Rauch said. 

All current measures will be dropped in phases, including mask requirements, obligation to report illness, and special rules for doctors and nursing homes, the minister said.

READ ALSO: Everything that changes about life in Austria in February 2023

Roadmap to end all restrictions

From May, there will be no mask requirement in hospitals, nursing homes, and doctor’s offices. However, people in risk groups will be able to take time off work if they feel they would not be adequately protected at the workplace (and working from home is not an option) – this will be valid until the end of April.

As of July, all other measures will end with the expiration of the Covid Measures Act. Covid-19 will no longer be a notifiable disease, so people who test positive won’t have to follow any particular protocol. Currently, they must adhere to certain restrictions for 10 days, depending on the province.

READ ALSO: What’s happening in Vienna in February 2023?

The Covid Measures Act also allowed provinces to opt for stricter measures if they deemed necessary. The Austrian capital Vienna famously adhered to stricter regulations and is the only province where there is still an FFP2 mask mandate in public transport. 

With the expiration of the Act, Vienna will no longer be allowed to impose specific regulations and the mask requirement will fall.

Monitoring and new Epidemics Act

Rauch said that, even after the end of the reporting obligation, Austria would continue to monitor the course of the pandemic – particularly with the analysis of PCR samples and evaluation of wastewater in specific treatment plants nationwide.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why are so many people falling ill in Austria right now?

Additionally, he said that the Ministry of Health is working on a fundamental revision of the Epidemics Act. The aim is to send a draft bill with a “pandemic plan” that will include detailed descriptions of how to deal with various pandemic phases by the end of the year. 

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