Instead, public health officials hope to be able to contain the outbreak by introducing more nuanced local measures and conducting all tests and tracing contacts. His approach echoes similar stories from elsewhere.
It’s a glimpse of what the new normal might look like: a perpetual whack-a-mole game in which authorities compete to contain the virus as it appears in new places.
“In the absence of a vaccine, the best scenario we can hope for is that there is a very low level of spread of the virus in the general population, and that if there are local outbreaks and outbreaks, that local health authorities can work quickly enough to contain it and prevent the spread, “said Dr. Thomas Kamradt, immunologist and professor at the University Hospital of the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, Germany.
The most important R number?
The high reproduction number shows how easily the virus spreads when it is not controlled. When it drops below 1, the epidemic fades. When it is greater than 1, it is spreading. If the rate stays above 1 for a long period of time, it could reach a point where there are more sick people than hospitals can handle. This means that some patients will end up losing the critical care they need, for example, because there are not enough ventilators, and the total number of deaths is therefore much higher.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly emphasized that in order to defeat the virus, the number, widely known as R0 or simply R, must be kept below 1. She suggested that further restrictions may be necessary if the rate increases.
But while the R number is important, it does not paint a complete picture. The rate in Germany rose suddenly because 1,553 workers at the Toennies factory tested positive for the virus, even when the rest of the country saw very few new infections.
“A must always be seen in context,” said Marieke Degen, deputy press director for the Robert Koch Institute. “If you have a low number of infections in total, in Germany [it’s] a few hundred a day, and some bigger shoots, R can go up pretty fast, but this is not that problematic, “he said.” It would be much worse if I had 50,000 cases a day and an estimated R of around 2-3. “
While the outbreak at the factory has been severe, authorities hope the virus has been unable to spread further. North Rhine-Westphalia Prime Minister Armin Laschet said Tuesday that so far only 24 people with no ties to the factory have tested positive in the district. “The question is, how many people have met with the infected people?” Laschet said at a press conference.
Experts now work against the clock to solve it. The district has already evaluated everyone connected to the factory and sent 100 mobile test teams to contact as many people as possible. A special diagnostic center has opened in the district to make sure anyone can get a free test. Dozens of soldiers, police, scientists from the Robert Koch Institute and members of the Red Cross have been deployed to help.
Speed is paramount. “You are always behind the epidemic to some degree,” said Mike Tildesley, associate professor at the University of Warwick. “We know that people can become infected for several days before symptoms appear … when you reach the stage you realize that there is a problem, there is already much more [cases] in the population. ”
Despite the enormous effort, epidemiologists are cautious in saying that the epidemic is under control. “Twenty-four seems like a low number, but it is a sign that the outbreak is not completely restricted to workers and their families … there was enough time for it to spread outside,” said Dr. Martin Stuermer, a virologist and the director of IMD Labor, a coronavirus testing laboratory in Frankfurt.
The Toennies plant closed last week, with all of its 7,000 employees and families ordered to quarantine, but the district’s broader closure and 360,000 residents was not announced until Tuesday.
Stuermer fears that this was too late. The general rule that Germany implemented when it began easing restrictions last month was that if an area registered more than 50 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants in seven days, it should consider entering the closure.
“From that point of view, it was too late,” he said, adding that previous serious outbreaks at meat packaging plants in Germany and elsewhere should have been a warning sign. “One should have been alarmed … Toennies began testing, identified more and more cases, identified herds of infection, and put in place some kind of measures to stop the spread, but overall, they were unable to control the outbreak,” he said.
Tildesley said that compared to before in the pandemic, countries like Germany and the United Kingdom are now better equipped to prevent local outbreaks from spreading further because they have managed to expand follow-up and evidence of contacts.
But both Stuermer and Kamradt said that to succeed, every part of the system must function well: health authorities must be able to intervene quickly, people must respect blockades, and companies must behave responsibly.
Toennies, the company that runs the factory at the center of the outbreak, has come under pressure. Clemens Toennies apologized for the outbreak and said the company had full responsibility, but criticism has not stopped.
CNN has repeatedly reached out to Toennies for comment.
“The factory cooperation was not very good, the authorities had to go in to get the data from the employees to be able to track them down and talk to them … it could have been done faster,” Kamradt said. Local officials, including Laschet, have even suggested that Toennies should be responsible for the outbreak.
Toennies said in a statement that he was “working 24 hours” to help authorities. In response to criticism from local authorities that the company did not provide the employees’ addresses, Toennies said it had not been negligent and had not withheld any data. Blamed Germany’s data protection laws. “We were in an extreme situation and we had to consider the privacy and data protection of several thousand people. Finally, we weighed the consequences and made the data available.” But Federal Labor Minister Hubertus Heil told the German newspaper Bild that he had “almost zero” confidence in Toennies.
Many of those infected are migrant workers from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland who work in overcrowded conditions and on precarious contracts, for low wages. German health authorities are now desperately trying to reach this previously invisible community: the district is hiring 150 translators to help.
CNN’s Stephanie Halasz, Hanna Ziady and Zamira Rahim in London and Frederik Pleitgen in Berlin contributed reporting.