Epidemiologists like Professor Dr. Jacob Spallek are currently expected to provide answers to questions that in fact can only be answered in a retrospective after scientific investigation. Nevertheless, he has agreed to classify the current situation for us.
Flu comparison: In media and social networks, the current corona pandemic is repeatedly compared with the seasonal occurrence of influenza/flu. What is your position on this?
SARS-CoV-2 is not comparable to influenza for a number of reasons: First, it is highly contagious like influenza, but unlike influenza there is (probably) no immunity in the population yet. Second, we do not yet have a vaccine, so the virus spreads very quickly – we saw an exponential increase in infection rates in many countries, including Germany, at the beginning, when no intervention was taken. In addition, SARS-CoV-2 can cause serious illnesses, so that exponential spread can lead to serious cases and deaths, especially in risk groups.
Currently, the only available interventions until so-called pharmaceutical interventions (such as vaccines or drugs) are available are so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions (such as contact restrictions, hygiene and distance rules and other public health interventions). The government is responsible for deciding on the nature and duration of these interventions. This is difficult to do when a new virus appears, since logically many things about the virus are still unknown.
The difference to influenza therefore has two aspects: First, the still missing immunity in the population and second, the still missing pharmaceutical interventions.
Second wave: When the restrictions are lifted and the previous daily routine is largely restored, will the virus not (re)spread rapidly?
This is possible, but depends on many factors. These include how interventions such as hygiene and distance rules work and are followed by each individual. Other contextual or seasonal factors (such as temperatures or holidays) can also have an influence.
It will be important to continue to carefully monitor the occurrence of infection: If the number of cases increases again, we must react quickly. This means testing as much as possible and identifying and interrupting infection chains. If the number of cases continues to fall, further relaxation may be possible in order to reduce the social damage caused by the restrictions. Particular attention should be paid to the burden on children and families caused by closed daycare centres and schools, even if they do not have such strong lobby groups as some companies or the Bundesliga.
In the coming months, it will definitely continue to be very important to protect the risk groups with the utmost attention.
Exit strategy: What do you think of the option of lifting the restrictions for the majority of the population again and leaving "only" the risk groups (elderly people and people with pre-existing diseases) in place?
Risk groups need to be protected with the utmost care. This would not be possible with an uninhibited exponential spread in the population, since we cannot completely isolate many millions of people in Germany – because so many belong to risk groups – from the rest of the population. However, if the virus is contained to a reasonable extent, further relaxing for the general population may be possible while continuing to provide strong protection for risk groups.
In addition, we do not finally know how dangerous or harmless the virus as a whole is – i.e. whether serious cases or long-term damage may occur in people without previous illnesses. It is in the nature of a pandemic with a new virus that there are many uncertainties at the beginning and some decisions have to be made quickly on the basis of uncertain evidence. With each day we get to know the virus better and can adapt our interventions more effectively.
In a survey on public health care in rural areas last year, you drew a rather positive conclusion. Do you think that the health care system in our region is well positioned to face the current challenges?
Health care in southern Brandenburg has responded very well to the pandemic. The local authorities and the clinics very quickly took steps to manage the pandemic, infection chains were successfully tracked and stopped and the number of intensive care beds increased. So far, case numbers in southern Brandenburg are low and there have been no major outbreaks in institutions such as Potsdam.
From an epidemiological point of view, southern Brandenburg has so far come well through the crisis. This is due on the one hand to the steps taken in good time and the functioning structures, but also to the sensible behaviour of the entire community. Contextual factors such as the lower population density also have an influence; here rural structures have a clear advantage over large cities.
It can also be seen that the German health care system with its large number of facilities, e.g. regional municipal hospitals, is still more broadly based than in many other European countries. Not only has the Carl Thiem Clinic in Cottbus, the largest hospital in the region, responded to the pandemic and significantly increased the number of intensive care beds, but other clinics in the region, such as the Niederlausitz Clinic in Senftenberg, have doubled the number of intensive care beds within a few weeks - which fortunately have not been needed until now.