Germany is already seeing a rise in its coronavirus transmission rate just days after it started its gradual easing of the nationwide social and commercial COVID-19 lockdown.
Authorities said on Tuesday that the transmission rate had ticked up from 0.9, where it had been for a few days in a row, to 1.0 (meaning one person only infects maximum one other person).
The R0, or basic reproduction number, is a key measure that shows how many people are infected by one infected person.
While the transmission rate is still a lot lower than the 3.0 it was at the beginning of March, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has repeatedly said that the rate needs to be pushed down to under 1.0 to dampen the spread of the virus and ensure that the country’s intensive care units are not overwhelmed.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who expressed her concern and annoyance last week that at the myriad of different discussions and approaches towards lifting lockdowns among the country’s 16 federal states, has warned that the country is far from out of the woods.
“We have to stay vigilant and disciplined,” Merkel said. “It would be a crying shame if we had a relapse with our eyes open.”
A scientist herself, Merkel recently explained the R0 measure in a press conference and described why even a slight increase makes a big difference.
“The curve has got flatter, but it still has to be in a shape that doesn't overburden our health system,” Merkel said. “Even if we assume that one person infects 1.1 others, we would reach the limits of what our health system and intensive care beds can manage in October.”
“If we assume a rate of 1.2, we would reach the health system's limit in July. And with a rate of 1.3 we would get there in June,” Merkel added.
The rate will be closely monitored in the coming hours and days to determine if easing the lockdown measures may provoke a second spike in cases. If it goes up, there is the possibility that restrictions could be reintroduced.
According to Johns Hopkins University data, Germany currently has 158,758 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and 6,126 deaths.
As of this week, shops up to 800 square metres have been allowed to re-open across Germany. Some students will go back to school from 4 May, and hairdressers will be allowed to start seeing customers again. However, all states have now made it mandatory to wear face masks in shops and on public transport.
The RKI said on Tuesday that while Germany had seen “relative success” in slowing the spread of the outbreak of the pandemic, people should still stay at home as much as possible and strictly follow social distancing rules.
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RKI president Lothar Wieler also said that the concept of a “herd immunity” approach to tackling the pandemic was “inconceivable” for Germany, as it is both dangerous and means “reckoning with how many lives you would be willing to sacrifice for it.”