As Europe reels from a resurgence of Covid-19, one bulwark against another lockdown is buckling: German contact tracers.
This spring, the country won praise for its can-do teams that worked the phones from 375 local health authorities, asking Covid patients to say who they had recently met and telling those contacts to quarantine.
The success of the country’s tracking and tracing regime helped keep case numbers low enough in Europe’s largest economy to allow the government to ease restrictions heading into summer.
But as cases surge again, German health authorities are losing track of the skyrocketing infections. That helps explain why Chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing for a return to measures that recall March and April — including closing restaurants, bars, gyms and other venues for most of November.
Merkel Eyes Partial One-Month Lockdown to Stem Virus Surge
The goal is to drive the rate of new cases below a weekly average of 50 per 100,000 people, a level where most German health authorities can handle the caseload, according to a draft federal government briefing paper obtained by Bloomberg. That incidence reached 87 per 100,000 nationwide as of Tuesday, and exceeded 200 in eight locations, said the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s public health agency.
Contact tracing remains a weak spot across Europe, even after governments earlier this year declared the practice crucial to controlling the virus while keeping economies open. Few countries had a sufficient number of trained health workers to jump into the task from the start, and even Germany’s tracers got overwhelmed at the peak of infections earlier this year.
As case numbers receded during the summer months, many countries focused on building up testing capacity — without devoting the same attention to contact tracing or making sure that people have the resources to properly isolate.
While tracing contacts is a powerful tool, it’s incumbent upon health officials to divert resources to more blunt measures once a region gets inundated with cases, William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, said in an email.
“The first step is obviously to not lose control of the pandemic,” he wrote.
Two weeks ago, Merkel said the nation was already in an “exponential” phase of infections, but nonetheless struggled to forge a united front in a meeting with the country’s regional state premiers. The next day, German Health Minister Jens Spahn told Bloomberg News that local authorities were finding it harder every day to keep track of transmission chains. (Spahn tested positive himself a few days later.)
If tracing in Germany is under strain, things are likely worse in other countries — such as France and Britain — where case numbers are higher. The French government reported 33,417 new infections on Tuesday, nearly triple the 11,409 cases recorded in Germany the same day, according to the Robert Koch Institute.
The heads of six of the nation’s science institutions called for Germans to reduce the amount of interactions when protective measures are lacking to a fourth of current levels — with the aim of bringing infections down to a level that health authorities can trace.
“As soon as that’s possible, the restrictions can be carefully eased without the threat of a renewed wave of the pandemic,” the institutions said in a statement.
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