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EXPLAINED: What will the Covid situation look like in Germany this winter?

Covid infection numbers are currently falling in Germany, but this could change as temperatures begin to drop. Here’s what we know so far about what the coming winter will look like.

A woman wearing an FFP2 mask, thick cap and headphones sits at a bus station as a public bus passes by.
A woman wearing an FFP2 mask, thick cap and headphones sits at a bus station as a public bus passes by. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jonas Walzberg

Endemic rather than pandemic?

One factor that makes this winter different from the previous two years is that a much higher percentage of the population has now had some form of contact with the Covid virus.

A recent study funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, for example, detected Covid antibodies in the blood of more than 95 percent of study participants.

In an interview with Bavarian Radio last week, Thomas Mertens, chairman of the Standing Commission on Vaccination (Stiko), assessed the Covid-19 situation in Germany as an “endemic viral infection”.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

A disease is considered endemic if it occurs permanently in a region with a relatively constant number of cases. In a pandemic, on the other hand, “an unknown pathogen encounters a human population that has no immunological experience with it”, Mertens explained.

Thomas Mertens, Chairman of the Standing Commission on Vaccination (STIKO), speaks during a press conference. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Young

As a large part of the German population has now developed basic immunity against Covid-19, this means that the situation in  Germany is becoming more endemic.

However, recent projections published by the Technical University (TU) in Berlin, have shown that Germany could still be hit with a new winter wave of Covid infections, even if no new dominant variant emerges.

Bremen epidemiologist Hajo Zeeb also told DPA that: “I don’t assume that the current wave – which appears to be waning slightly – is already the last one this autumn/winter”.

Vaccinations and medication

Since October 1st, a booster vaccination has been required in order to be considered fully vaccinated in Germany.

READ ALSO: What to know about getting a fourth Covid vaccination in Germany

There are currently several advanced vaccines available that have been adapted to the current Omicron virus variants BA.1 and BA.4/BA.5. Currently, the official recommendation from the Standing Commission on Vaccination (STIKO) stipulates that people over the age of 60 should get a further booster vaccination, as well as those over the age of 12 who have an underlying health conditions and residents and staff in nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

A steep increase in Covid cases could see Omicron vaccinations being recommended for all age groups, however.

Drug treatments for Covid patients will also be more widely promoted over the next few months and doctors’ offices are now able to dispense the drug Paxlovid directly without patients having to go to the pharmacy.

New variants

As reported by The Local, experts expect new sub-variants of the Omicron BA.5 to spread rapidly in the coming weeks. The European disease control agency (ECDC) expects case numbers to increase due to the Omicron sub-variants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1. 

Which rules might come back?

Under the current Covid regulations, which came into force on October 1st and apply nationwide, mask-wearing is only mandatory on long-distance trains and for residents and staff in nursing and care homes.  

READ ALSO: Are German states poised to bring back uniform Covid measures?

Whether or not to increase restrictions is up to the states. It’s likely that, in the event of rising numbers, states will broaden the mask-wearing rule, rather than reintroduce the so-called 2G and 3G rules, which set restrictions on public life based on vaccination and recovery status.

A notice indicating that masks are mandatory in doctors’ offices is posted at the entrance to a doctor’s office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Harald Tittel

Most states have already taken measures to enforce mask-wearing on their own transport networks, though some differ on whether passengers have to wear an FFP2 mask or if a surgical mask suffices. 

Last week, Johannes Nießen, chairman of the Federal Association of Public Health Physicians, urged ministers to establish a clear measure for what constitutes a “critical” situation after which Covid measures must be tightened.  

Speaking to ARD’s Morgenmagazin show, he said that it should be clear which rules will apply in both Hamburg and Munich “if the incidence reaches 500 or 1,000”.

Though some states, like Lower Saxony, have come up with their own thresholds for loosening and tightening measures, there is no clear guidance in the Infection Protection Act about what constitutes a “critical” situation. 

READ ALSO: German health minister urges states to bring back mask-wearing indoors

In mid-October, Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach also urged states to reintroduce the obligation to wear a mask in indoor spaces.

How will the situation look in hospitals?

Most researchers, experts and politicians no longer see the health threat posed by the virus itself as the biggest problem. What is a cause for concern, however, is the serious staffing problems in hospitals due to high infection numbers.

In Lower Saxony, for example, the incidence of weekly hospitalisations and the proportion of beds occupied by Covid patients – rather than Covid infection numbers – are the two key benchmarks for deciding which Covid measures to bring in. It could be that as the winter progresses, other states introduce such benchmarks. 

Hospital beds stand in a corridor at Großhadern Hospital in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lukas Barth

Intensive care physician and member of the German government’s Corona Expert Council, Christian Karagiannidis, warned that the already precarious situation in nursing is becoming even more dramatic because so many employees are catching Covid.

Speaking to the Rheinische Post on Monday he said: “Our main problem in the health care system is currently the multiple staff shortages and the associated bed closures.” 

“If the number of patients increases significantly in the winter, the system will come under extremely heavy strain. I can’t imagine this happening without limiting regular care,” Karagiannidis said.

Bremen epidemiologist Hajo Zeeb also said that he expects care facilities to be “under more or less permanent pressure this winter”. 

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Germany to drop mask mandate in trains and buses from February 2nd

Germany will end the requirement to wear face masks on long-distance trains and buses from February 2nd as the coronavirus pandemic loosened its grip on the country, authorities announced on Friday.

Germany to drop mask mandate in trains and buses from February 2nd

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach made the announcement after consultations with ministers from Germany’s 16 federal states, saying “the infection situation has stabilised.”

Lauterbach, however, encouraged people to continue wearing masks voluntarily “on the basis of personal responsibility”, adding “the virus should not be trivialised” and warning of potential longer-term impacts.

Several factors contributed to the policy change, Lauterbach said, including a higher level of immunity in the public and a reduced chance of new mutations, which meant a winter resurgence of the virus was unlikely.

The situation is “tense but manageable” in hospitals, Lauterbach added.

The requirement, which has been in place since the early stages of the pandemic, had been scheduled to expire on April 7nd but will now end sooner.

A number of German states – including Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein – have already relaxed mask rules in regional public transport, while several others are set to do so at the start of February. 

READ ALSO: Several German states to drop Covid masks on public transport in February

However, rules on the country’s long-distance train and bus network remain the central government’s responsibility.

Germany was one of the few remaining countries in Europe to keep a mask requirement, with many having scrapped rules or downgraded them to recommendations in 2022.

Alongside Germany, Spain is the only other large European country to maintain mask rules on long-distance trains and public transport, with the Spanish government announcing in October that these will remain in place until at least March 2023.

Free “test-to-release” tests to end 

In another key move away from pandemic measures, the government has also announced that people will have to pay for their Covid tests in order to end self-isolation from January 16th.

Medical staff who need to test before returning to work and visitors to clinics and care homes will still receive their tests free of charge until February 28th. 

Self-isolation rules vary from state to state, but some require a negative test if people want to stop isolating after five days instead of the full ten.

These are currently funded by the government, but funding is due to end on January 15th. 

The news comes after a group of five states announced that they would be ending mandatory self-isolation for people infected with Covid.

Instead, people will be required to wear masks while out and about and observe social distancing rules. 

READ ALSO: Four German states poised to end mandatory Covid isolation