BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s 16 state governors met Wednesday to discuss whether to extend the country’s coronavirus lockdown beyond mid-February, amid concern that new virus variants could reverse a decline in new confirmed cases.
Germany’s second lockdown began in November and was extended and toughened before Christmas due to concern that the number of COVID-19 patients could overwhelm hospitals. It is set to end on Sunday, but authorities are expected to prolong the lockdown again — keeping bars, restaurants and most stores closed, among other things.
The reopening of schools is a major point of contention between the federal and state governments. Several governors have argued for reopening kindergartens and elementary schools first, to relieve parents of the burden of home schooling and make sure that underprivileged children don’t fall too far behind.
In Germany, state governments have extensive powers — including authority over education. However, the country’s strained medical personnel have demanded that the lockdown be extended in its current strict form.
The head of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, or DIVI, warned Wednesday that the reopening of schools and kindergartens would lead to virus infections to reemerge.
“Schools and kindergartens are unfortunately places where the virus is passed on,” DIVI President Gernot Marx told the Rheinische Post daily newspaper. “The kids carry it into the families, and most teachers are not vaccinated. As an intensive care doctor I am therefore telling you: this is irresponsible.”
Germany’s national disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, said last week that a more contagious variant first observed in Britain had been detected in most of Germany’s 16 states. Another variant, first detected in South Africa, has also been confirmed in several COVID-19 cases in Germany.
Despite concerns about the new variants, there are signs that lockdown restrictions are slowing the country’s outbreak.
On Wednesday, the Robert Koch Institute reported 8,072 new virus cases and 813 deaths in 24 hours. In all, Germany has seen over 63,000 confirmed virus deaths during the pandemic.
The weekly number of new infections has dropped to 68 per 100,000 inhabitants. The government’s goal is to push the rate below 50 per 100,000 to enable reliable contact-tracing. The number peaked at nearly 200 just before Christmas.
The number of people having received at least their first vaccine shot stood at 2.34 million people, or 2.8% of the population, as of Monday.
One of the category of businesses likely to get an earlier reprieve from the lockdown are hairdressers.
Merkel recently acknowledged that she gets an assistant to help maintain her hairdo, but that it may be necessary to let the general public visit salons again soon “for practical reasons.”
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Kirsten Grieshaber And Frank Jordans, The Associated Press