In December, stricter corona rules apply in Germany. Is that enough to ease the situation at Christmas? We simulated different scenarios.
The “breakwater lockdown” decided at the beginning of November has apparently slowed the exponential growth in the number of corona cases. But the situation in Germany remains tense. On Friday the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported a new high in deaths. More than a million Germans were already demonstrably infected with the corona virus. This corresponds to around 1.2 percent of the population – but in truth it is more, as many infections go undetected without a laboratory test.
For better protection, new rules should apply from December – Here you can read what the federal and state governments have agreed on. The aim is to continue to avoid overloading the health system and to reduce the number of cases to a controllable level. But are the measures enough to celebrate a relaxed Christmas and New Year’s Eve?
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Saarland University simulates the course of the pandemic
With the Covid-19-Simulator Thorsten Lehr, Professor of Clinical Pharmacy at Saarland University, can simulate the course of the epidemic for Germany, the individual federal states and even down to the district level.
Of course, the results should not be misunderstood as exact predictions. The calculations are based on simplified mathematical-epidemiological models and the figures reported by health authorities and institutions so far. The trends calculated from this are simply continued into the future in order to give the viewer a sense of what to expect if the development remained the same.
There are limits to the informative value: the further the forecast extends into the future, the greater the uncertainty area (shown in gray) – i.e. the distance between the lowest and highest estimate. In addition, the computer model cannot foresee fundamental changes in behavior in the population, new test strategies or political guidelines and their effects, and take them into account.
At least 280 people die from Covid-19 every day
An example: Assuming that the number of cases continues to develop as last, according to the model, we would have to reckon that more than 280 people per day will die from the consequences of a coronavirus infection around Christmas Eve. The total number of deaths would rise to around 23,000 by then. An estimated 4,800 people would have to be cared for in the intensive care units on the holidays.
Mind you, this is the middle scenario. With Christmas four weeks ahead of us, there is a growing area of uncertainty. And in view of the fact that Covid-19 is already claiming around 280 deaths per day in this country, the forecast will probably have to be revised upwards significantly. Seasonal effects due to cold spells or increased virus spread through holiday travel are also not yet taken into account by the model.
The computational model of the Covid-19 simulator is continuously fed with new data and trained. The update takes place weekly, always on Wednesday. This article is based on data as of November 24th.
What are the effects of the new measures?
Now, of course, there is hope that the newly decided measures will have a positive effect on the infection rate and that the number of cases will drop faster. In order to simulate this effect, the Covid-19 simulator offers the possibility of specifying a future R value (“Future R
The estimated R-value is currently around 1. This means that an infected person infects another person on average. This keeps growth relatively stable, but the number of cases is not falling fast enough. At this level, the situation is not expected to ease soon. The lockdown goes into overtime.
But what happens if the R-value is reduced to 0.8 by further contact restrictions from December 1st? At least that would be a value that the creator of the Covid-19 simulator considers realistic. In one Interview with Deutschlandfunk Lehr also said that a lower R value would actually be necessary to get the infection process under control. “0.7, 0.6 would actually be values that I would like to strive for,” said Lehr, referring to the first lockdown in March, in which an R value of 0.6 was actually achieved – with the corresponding visible successes.
The “incidence target value” will no longer be achieved in 2020
With a constant R = 0.8 from next Tuesday, the number of new infections would have declined to such an extent that “only” between 8,300 and 8,800 people are likely to be infected per day around Christmas. The “target incidence value” of 50 new infections within seven days per 100,000 inhabitants would be within reach: it would be almost 80 on Christmas Day and 66 on New Year’s Eve. If R can be lowered even further, the 50 mark can be reached to be achieved this year.
However, this is a nationwide average. Large regional differences are still to be expected. In any case, the current regulations only provide for easing if an incidence of less than 50 is reached.
You can with the Covid-19-Simulator also calculate the developments in your district. However, it is essential to observe the information in the FAQ on the page.
This model calculation is also extremely optimistic. Experience has shown that new measures to combat pandemics only show a visible effect after two weeks, not when they come into force. And: In reality, the R value is by no means as stable as in the simulation.
Little hope for improvement in the intensive care units
Even if the number of cases falls significantly in December, it will be a sad Christmas for many families. Because the measures will initially have little effect on the number of deaths and hospitalizations. They are simply too late for those affected. Often the patients only die after a long, severe course of the disease.
In the model (with R = 0.8 from December 1), the curve of the daily death toll reaches a provisional high at the beginning of December and falls before Christmas. On the holidays, however, an average of well over 200 patients still die every day. The total number of deaths at the end of the year fluctuates in the model between 23,200 to 25,500 with additional measures, and around 23,600 to 26,400 deaths if the R-value is not reduced.
These factors could stir up the numbers
In the best case scenario, there will be clear signs of relaxation in the intensive care units in January and lockdown measures can be lifted gradually. Without a significant decrease in the number of cases, easing at the beginning of 2021 is hardly conceivable.
However, we do not know how the holidays will affect the infection rate. The federal and state governments want to soften the rules between Christmas and New Year’s Eve so that citizens can celebrate as usual. That is meant nicely however, it could prove counterproductive and in the meantime encourage the infection process again.
Outbreaks in nursing homes and hospitals could also quickly destroy more optimistic predictions about the death rate. There is already a worrying trend in the so-called over 60 incidence: This particularly endangered age group is now much more affected by the coronavirus than it was a few weeks ago.
Citizens will have to limit themselves for a long time
In view of the gloomy prospects, Lehr spoke unequivocally in favor of further steps even before the conference of prime ministers on Deutschlandfunk: “I think it would certainly be helpful because the current measures are not enough,” he said in the conversation.
The scientist emphasized that it is not only politicians who are challenged, but each individual citizen. “We should look to further curb private meetings and celebrations, and limit travel as much as possible.” Since the “Lockdown light” came into force on November 2nd the Germans have already restricted their mobility, but the effect is nowhere near as clear as it was in spring.
“Horror scenario”: If the R-value remains high
Lehr’s “horror scenario” would be one in which the R-value remains above 1. “Then we would not only observe a further increase in the number of cases, but what would be much worse, we would of course also observe an increase in the hospitals,” Lehr told Deutschlandfunk.
According to the experts, the load limit is likely to have almost been reached in around 6,000 corona intensive care patients nationwide. But situations that are difficult to bear can arise much earlier in individual, heavily polluted regions. The crucial question is how far the R-value can be lowered. “The harder the better,” says Lehr.