Coronavirus

Corona crisis: are the health authorities as bad as their reputation?

A Bundeswehr soldier helps out in the health department of the city of Pasewalk in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Stefan Sauer / picture alliance via Getty Images

Nothing works better against the spread of the coronavirus than contact tracking. Who knows when and where people will be infected with the virus, who can track down all the contacts of these people and put them in isolation or quarantine, will get the virus under control. Every broken chain of infection creates control – and saves lives.

There are countries that have perfected contact tracing, also by digital means. South Korea, for example, or Taiwan, where every corona outbreak is contained with a wave of quarantine orders. Or New Zealand, where the coronavirus was almost wiped out with a well-functioning system of contact tracking and a tough lockdown.

And then there is Germany, where yellow and red markings regularly adorn the map of Germany in the weekly corona situation reports of the federal government under the heading “Overload displays”. A notification from the health authorities in which the “implementation of infection protection measures due to capacity bottlenecks” is foreseeable or not at all.

In plain language this means: There is a lack of staff to ensure contact tracking. In the past few months, so-called containment scouts from the Robert Koch Institute or soldiers from the German Armed Forces had to help out over and over again – much to the chancellor’s annoyance.

The overload notifications for health authorities in the corona management report of the federal government of February 1.

The overload notifications for health authorities in the corona management report of the federal government of February 1.

Screenshot / NewsABC.net

Merkel is sounding the alarm, offices refuse to introduce a new IT system

“The health authorities no longer have the ability to trace contacts,” quoted the “Bild” newspaper Angela Merkel (CDU) two weeks ago from a meeting between the Chancellor and the parliamentary leaders of the CDU and CSU.

In the past few days and weeks, Merkel has said in public that the German health authorities are not able to track contacts if the number of new infections per 100,000 inhabitants is over 50 within a week.

She also blames the fact that there is no uniform system of contact tracing by the offices. The “Sormas” IT system should actually take care of this at the turn of the year. Merkel and the prime ministers of the federal states had agreed to make the system the standard in the health authorities. At the end of January, the Chancellor had to admit that Sormas will not be installed in all offices until the end of February.

It is questionable whether that will help. Because in many counties the willingness to use Sormas is not particularly great. In a letter to Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU), the German District Association wrote of the “unnecessary expense” associated with the introduction of Sormas. “We therefore consider the goal of a nationwide introduction to be neither desirable nor currently achievable,” says the letter from the end of January, which the German press agency reported on last week.

Means: Even if Sormas is installed nationwide in all health offices, it may not be used everywhere and can help improve contact tracking in Germany.

Big cities contradict Merkel’s criticism of the health authorities

However, some city officials do not want to accept that contact tracking for health authorities is only possible with a corona incidence of 50 or lower, as Merkel says.

“You can’t say that across the board,” said Cologne’s Lord Mayor Henriette Reker (independent) of “Welt am Sonntag”. In Cologne, despite values ​​of over 50, people have been able to “contact people who have tested positive as well as contact persons within 24 hours and issue quarantine orders” for months. In fact, this doesn’t just apply to Cologne. A survey by the WDR of 29 of 53 health authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia in mid-January came to the result: 90 percent of them stated that they could guarantee contact tracking within one day.

Bremen’s Prime Minister Andreas Bovenschulte also told the “Welt” that in his city, where the incidence is over 70, all contacts are being followed up. The town halls in Munich, Leipzig and Düsseldorf also emphasized that contact tracking also works for values ​​beyond the 50 limit.

According to Helmut Dedy, the general manager of the German Association of Cities, this is mainly due to the IT skills in the offices of the big cities. “The solutions there are running smoothly and are already enabling the health authorities in these cities to ensure contact tracking even if the incidence is well over 50.” However, this is not the case with every health department in Germany.

One example of this is the Berlin district of Spandau, where the corona incidence is currently almost 80. The Spandau medical officer Gudrun Widders told the “Tagesspiegel” on Sunday that the entire district office had to help to ensure contact tracking within 24 to 48 hours: “In the road construction office, in the green areas office, in the youth welfare office and almost everywhere there are teams and contacts follow up if necessary. ”

Ultimately, it turns out that whether contact tracking works for corona infections depends on the region. Does a health department have enough staff? Is it digitally up to date and competent? And what extent of infection is it confronted with – an outbreak at an event (easier to determine) or mass, diffuse outbreaks in private? The offices’ effectiveness varies depending on the answers to these questions. However, it is also clear: every chain of infection that can no longer be traced by a health department is a defeat in the fight against Corona.

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