BERLIN—When Covid-19 swept across Europe this spring, Germany gained plaudits for its handling of the pandemic. Now authorities fear they are losing control of the virus.
Germany registered one of the lowest death rates from the disease in the world in the first half of the year. It had fewer infections than most of its large neighbors and its hospitals never ran out of emergency care beds, factors that led to the government enacting one of the mildest lockdowns in Europe.
Now, with infections in France and Italy lower than their mid-November peak, daily infections and deaths in Germany are breaking records every week, pushing the country’s health system to its limits and forcing the government to move to a harder lockdown.
“The situation has never been so serious in this pandemic,” Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases, said Tuesday.
So what happened?
Scientists, politicians and psychologists say many Germans, including some in the government, made a fatal error of judgment after Germany emerged comparatively unscathed this summer: They thought they were safe.
This assumption, combined with the government’s imposition of a moderate lockdown in November that left all shops, offices and factories open, meant Germans didn’t cut down on social contacts nearly enough as the virus began spreading again rapidly through the country, scientists say.
Uwe Liebert, a virologist at Leipzig University, said Germany’s success in the spring “led to a certain carefreeness in the population.”
The relatively low level of infections recorded in the spring also meant many Germans underestimated how easily they could get infected this autumn.
The Cosmo study group, a project to monitor Germans’ attitude toward the pandemic and measures to fight it, showed that in the current surge, some 40% of Germans believe they are rather unlikely or extremely unlikely to get infected with the virus. The level of alertness in Germans is similar to the levels seen in the spring despite overall infection numbers that are now three to five times higher, said Sarah Eitze, a member of the study group which includes several universities and public health institutes. The lower the perceived risk, the less likely people are to comply with hygiene and safety rules, she said.
Daily infections have so far averaged about 18,500 in December and neared the 30,000 mark this week, higher than in November and a significant jump from the peak of 6,000 to 7,000 daily cases recorded in the spring. Some 55% of all Covid-19 deaths in the country have occurred since the beginning of November, RKI data shows.
While Germany’s first lockdown in the spring came earlier in the course of the pandemic—as measured by the prevalence of the virus in the population—than in other countries, this week’s tightening of measures comes as the pathogen is now widespread. High case numbers also mean many regional public health agencies are no longer able to contact-trace new cases, making it harder to cut infection chains by ordering quarantines.
To be sure, Germany still has a lower infection-and-fatality rate compared with many other European countries. Still, whereas German hospitals were treating Italian and French patients in the spring, some are now operating close to capacity, and public health officials fear things will get worse before the tougher lockdown that came into force this week starts having an effect.
Markus Söder, premier of the southern German state of Bavaria, warned that “Bergamo is closer than some might think,” referring to the town in Northern Italy at the epicenter of the first wave in Europe.
The situation is particularly dramatic in the state of Saxony. As with most of the former East Germany, Saxony had one of the lowest infection rates in Germany during the spring. After a surge that began in October, it now has the highest seven-day infection rate of all German states.
“Our hospitals are at the limit of what they can manage,” said Christian Kleber, an emergency room doctor at the university clinic in Dresden now in charge of coordinating the redistribution of Covid-19 patients across the region.
There are currently around 1,000 Covid-19 patients hospitalized in eastern Saxony, nearly 10 times more than over the entire spring, he said, adding that the university’s own model indicated that if cases didn’t start falling within the next two weeks, hospitals would struggle to cope.
Virologists and local politicians in Saxony say other factors, such as border traffic with the Czech Republic and Poland, where case numbers rose rapidly this fall, likely played a role in the surge. But the main reason, they said, was the region’s low rate of infections in the spring.
“Our people here were of the view that this (virus) doesn’t affect us here and it indeed hadn’t,” said Bernd Lange, administrator of the district of Görlitz in eastern Saxony that currently has one of the highest infection rates in all of Germany.
Like parts of the U.S., a lack of trust in government might have fed skepticism about how harmful the virus was. A Deutsche Bank survey in November found Saxony had the highest proportion of people who thought the pandemic was being overdramatized or not even real.
The perception that Germany, especially the regions in the north and the east of the country, would be spared the worst of Europe’s autumn surge initially seemed confirmed when infections began climbing in September and October but much more slowly than in France or the U.K.
This was one of the reasons why the lockdown enacted on Nov. 2 left all shops, schools and day cares open and ordered no curfews. Politicians have since admitted the measures weren’t enough.
In the spring, Germany’s first lockdown—which shut schools, kindergartens and most nonessential shops—caused a 60% drop in social interactions. In November, the drop was 40%, according to the RKI’s Mr. Wieler.
Data from the Cosmo group shows that in November and December, Germans’ perceived probability of getting infected with the virus rose again, though still not above the level from last spring.
Michael Geisler, a regional administrator in Saxony, is confident a recent spike in deaths will change behaviors. The measures currently in place are also a lot more constraining, which should reduce interactions further.
“In the spring, we had 3 or 4 deaths here and there was a big discussion from coronavirus deniers whether those deaths were indeed from coronavirus,” said Mr. Geisler. “Now we have some 250 deaths, that is a lot.”
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Write to Ruth Bender at Ruth.Bender@wsj.com
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