“Right now it is a local outbreak,” said Ralf Reintjes, professor of epidemiology and surveillance at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. But if the approach fails in Gütersloh and in other cities like Gottingen, where a tower is quarantined, he warned, Germany “will probably have a second wave.”
Ground zero in Gütersloh is a slaughterhouse owned by Tönnies, a meat processing company. Of about 7,000 workers at the facility, more than 1,500 have tested positive in recent days. Until now, local transmission to the general population has been limited, local authorities insisted on Tuesday, the same day the closure was announced, followed by an extension of the measures to the neighboring Warendorf district.
Police are being deployed for mobile test facilities, while the new security lockout, which effectively returns districts to quarantine introduced nationwide in March, will run until June 30.
“The purpose is to calm the situation, extend the tests now to determine whether the virus is already widespread among Tönnies employees or not,” said Armin Laschet, the region’s prime minister and a potential contender to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor. federal.
The situation sheds light both on efforts to manage the health crisis and on work standards in Europe at a plant that depends on imported labor.
Peter Liese, a conservative MEP and trained doctor, cited low temperatures at meat packaging facilities like the Tönnies plant. “This is normally winter conditions … when it is most dangerous to be infected.”
Working conditions are also to blame, he said, pointing to workers’ small homes and the company’s reliance on temporary contracts that, among other things, deny sick leave. Liese said he is partnering with colleagues to pressure the European Commission to do more to address these issues.
Ansgar Gerhardus, a professor at the Research Institute of Public Health and Nursing at the University of Bremen, echoed the point. For him, it is no coincidence that other large workplaces like Mercedes-Benz or Bayer, where people work in close contact but are offered sick days and better contracts, have avoided similar outbreaks.
“It is time to observe these conditions … the controls have to go up,” said Gerhardus.
He added that the infection must have been circulating for a while for many people to test positive now, since “one person cannot have infected 1,500.”
Slaughterhouses in other parts of Europe have also been sources of infection.
In Yorkshire, UK, authorities put a slaughterhouse under lockdown after an outbreak. Similarly, a facility in Wales was also closed, where more than 150 people tested positive for coronavirus.
Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said slaughterhouses are just one type of “institutional amplifier” in which the coronavirus is more likely to spread. Other examples include nursing homes, cruise ships, and prisons.
Combined with the harsh working conditions and cold, slaughterhouses are noisy, McKee explained, making screaming a necessity and therefore aiding the spread of the virus through the drops.
But it’s not just the slaughterhouses where clusters of cases are emerging. In France, localized clusters of cases have been observed in Normandy, with small outbreaks in cities across the region. More than 100 people are also suspected of having coronavirus in the quarantine tower block in Göttingen.
Test, trace, isolate
Germany has favored a decentralized approach to blocking individual areas where outbreaks occur. Reintjes agrees with this strategy, arguing that entire states and countries do not need to be blocked by local outbreaks.
“Evidence, case identification and then contact tracing and quarantining people, as difficult as it is … is absolutely crucial in a situation like this,” Reintjes said.
More importantly, contact trackers must have local knowledge, be well trained and have enough staff for their work to be effective, he added.
McKee also insists on the importance of local knowledge.
As part of its response, the Robert Koch Institute sent 15 officials to Gütersloh and three to the Warendorf district to strengthen the state’s contact tracing operation, the federal health ministry said. Locally, authorities promise free tests for anyone in the districts.
“Contact trackers that operate locally, who have knowledge of where people live and where they come from … can identify where the risks are likely to be,” McKee said.
“[But] This is going to be exceptionally difficult when you have a remote call center system where people don’t have that knowledge, “he said, noting the situation in the UK.
For Gerhardus of the University of Bremen, the important thing now is to act decisively.
“We have to be careful that it doesn’t become the German Ischgl,” he said, referring to the Austrian resort that turned out to be a key point of spread for tourists returning after their ski trips in February and March.
The danger is that as summer vacation approaches, many people will want to avoid blockages in order to keep their reservations, Gerhardus said.
“We have had such outbreaks,” he said, noting a similar increase in cases at another slaughterhouse in the nearby town of Coesfeld. “It was smaller, around 300 people. But they managed to contain it in a short time and it did not spread to [wider] population.
“This is huge, but it is possible [to contain it] if you’re pretty tough on your measurements and smart, “he added.