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Why is Denmark cutting Covid-19 controls as infections rise?

The Danish Health Authority on Wednesday cut the distance counting as "close contact" to just one metre, the latest in a string of relaxations of Covid-19 controls. Why is it doing this at a time when infections are rising?

Why is Denmark cutting Covid-19 controls as infections rise?
Photo: Ólafur Steinar Rye Gestsson/Ritzau Scanpix

What is the latest change? 

The authority said in a press release on Wednesday that it was cutting the distance required to qualify as being “in close contact” with someone who has tested positive from two metres to one metre.

Previously, anyone who had been two metres from someone who tests positive for 15 minutes or more was required to self-isolate and get tested, so the change will mean a significant cut in the number of people forced to stay home and take tests, making it less likely schools and offices will detect outbreaks early. 

In the new guidelines, those who have been in close contact with someone who has in turn been in close contact with someone who tests positive will also no longer need to take a Covid-19 test. 

What other relaxations in controls have happened recently? 

Last week, the authority dropped its recommendation that people should keep a distance of at least one metre, or in some cases two metres, from others when in public places, opening the way for cinemas, theatres, churches and a raft of other places where people gather to return to normality. 

What’s happening to the infection rate? 

The level of daily infections in Denmark seems to have broken through the upper limit of about 1,000 new cases a day, below which it has been hovering since the end of July, while the number of patients being treated for coronavirus in Denmark’s hospitals has now risen above 100 for the first time since the start of June. 

What has happened to vaccinations? 

There are still 1.4 million people in Denmark who have neither been fully vaccinated nor booked times for a dose, either because they are under 12 years of age, because they do not want to get vaccinated, or because they have not got around to booking a time. The number of daily doses being administered has fallen from above 50,000 a day at the peak in mid-June to below 5,000 today. 

So why relax controls so much at the same time as infections are rising? 

When announcing the various relaxations, Helene Probst, the agency’s vice director, has pointed to the high level of vaccination in Denmark, with about 75 percent of the adult population now fully vaccinated, which she argues means it is possible to safely return to near to normality. 

We have now reached a situation where we have good control of the infection in the community because so many people have accepted the offer to get vaccinated,” she has said.

This means, she argues, that prevention recommendations and contact tracing guidelines can be changed so that they are “a little less intrusive” and “you can all maintain a normal everyday life”. 

What do the experts say? 

Viggo Andreasen, associate professor at the Department of Science and the Environment at Roskilde University, told DR that he believed that rather than struggle to vaccinate the last hold-outs in society, it now made sense to allow the virus to spread and let them become immune through infection. 

“We have come as far as we can with the help of vaccines. The vaccine rollout has more or less stopped, and the question is, what can be done to move forward with the coronavirus, so that we do not have to live with restrictions indefinitely?” he said. 

He has calculated that if all restrictions are lifted, half of those who have yet to be vaccinated, either because they refuse the vaccine or because they are under the age of 12, would be immune through infection within six months. 

“When you let the epidemic run, then they will get immunity the natural way, that is, by becoming infected. So really, the plan is that during the autumn here, a large portion of the unvaccinated will become infected and gain immunity that way, in which case the coronavirus pandemic will die out.” 

Søren Riis Paludan, a virology professor at Aarhus University, told The Local that the government was no longer targeting infection rates. 

“It depends on what you have as a focus: is it infection rates, hospitalizations, or death?” he said. “I guess in Denmark, the focus is very much shifted onto what is the burden on the health system, whereas before it was on the infection rate.” 

He said that with hospitalisations now most common among people between the ages of 20 and 40 who have not got vaccinated, there was a sense in Denmark that the responsibility should now be placed on the individual to get vaccinated, rather than on society as a whole to keep the spread of infection low. 

“Those are all people who could have got vaccinated if they wanted. So it’s not fair if those who don’t want to get a vaccine basically impose restrictions on the rest of us.” 

What are the risks of loosening up restrictions, contact tracing and testing? 

According to Paludan, the risks are fairly low.

“From the health point of view, there’s little risk so long as people get vaccinated, and so long as the most vulnerable people who got vaccinated early last year retain that immunity.” 

He said the test would come in the winter when it was possible that people in elderly care homes, the first in Denmark to get vaccinated, might start to lose the immunity they had got from their vaccinations in January. 

“I guess that is the big unknown here. Because I guess the big test is going to be when we approach winter.” 

Will 102-year-old Paula Edsberg, pictured here with her 70-year-old daughter Pia Edsberg, need another dose this winter. Photo: Niels Ahlmann Olesen/Ritzau Scanpix

What happens if the most vulnerable in society start to become sick again? 

If immunity is showing signs of wearing off among those vaccinated earliest, it is possible, he said, that Denmark could bring back some restrictions, although more likely that there would be a new campaign of vaccination. 

“I would expect there to be either some rapid revaccinations or some restrictions.” 

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.