Corona high-wire act: when is our health system overloaded?

A ghost is haunted: the overloading of the health system by Corona. But how many new infections can our country withstand? The answer to this is crucial - and difficult to answer

Don't overburden: The second corona wave is currently rolling over Germany. Is our health system up to it?

© dpa Picture Alliance / Jens Büttner

Many people still remember the shocking images from northern Italy. In March, intensive care units there were overwhelmed with too many corona patients, and crematoria could no longer keep up with their work. Now that the corona virus is spreading rapidly again, fear of a similar situation is returning in Germany. It is about "not to overload our health system," said Chancellor Angela Merkel recently. But when is this system "overloaded"?

"The decisive factor for this question is the number of inpatients and, in particular, intensive care patients in need of treatment," says Georg Baum, managing director of the German Hospital Association (DKG).

The personnel issue remains unsolved

With regard to the capacities of intensive care beds, Germany is in a worldwide unique supply situation. According to the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive and Emergency Medicine (DIVI), around 9,000 of the more than 30,000 intensive care beds are currently free (as of Sunday). There are also another 12,000 beds that can be activated in an emergency. "In addition, we have shown that we can vacate around 150,000 to 200,000 normal beds," explains Baum.

He is more concerned about the adequate supply of trained staff. A corresponding utilization of the beds "would require maximum in-house staff transfers and concentration in the areas requiring urgent care."

It is still comparatively quiet in the intensive care units. Around 770 corona patients were last treated there (as of Sunday) according to DIVI. For comparison: in mid-April there were at times more than 2500. But the values ​​are increasing. "We have significantly increasing numbers of Covid patients in the hospital," says Baum. Two weeks ago, only around 420 corona patients received intensive care.

How steadfast is our health system?

Another important factor is whether health authorities can track outbreaks and warn potentially infected people. This can prevent further spread. However, the system is fragile, as the example of the Berlin district of Neukölln shows, which is struggling with a particularly high number of new infections. "We no longer have one source of fire, but multiple embers - not dozens, but hundreds," said Neukölln's medical officer, Nicolai Savaskan Daily mirror last week. In 70 percent of the cases, the source of the infection can no longer be found.

The Federal Ministry of Health cannot estimate how many new infections our health system can withstand. "The number of severe courses depends on the total number of cases, but other factors also play a major role here, for example how many people from risk groups are affected," said a spokesman for the ministry at the request of the German press agency With. According to the Robert Koch Institute, there have recently been an increasing number of corona outbreaks in old people's and nursing homes. Elderly and previously ill people are particularly prone to a severe course.

The flu season is coming up

The comparatively mild course of the pandemic to date should not lead to underestimating the dangers, says Uwe Janssens, President of DIVI. The occupancy of the intensive care beds in the coming winter will depend on many factors that hardly played a role last spring. This includes the coming flu wave - and how strong it will hit in view of the corona measures. Research by the Robert Koch Institute suggests that hygiene measures, keeping your distance and wearing masks also reduce the spread of the flu.

For 2020, the rapid decline in influenza activity and the duration of the flu epidemic shorter by at least two weeks were noticeable, according to the RKI study. It is currently not possible to estimate how strong the flu wave will rage in the coming cold season, according to a recent RKI report. A strong flu epidemic would drive up the number of intensive care beds used.