Modus Covid report shows: Our vaccination pace does not stop the 3rd wave


Berlin physicist in conversation: Modus Covid report shows: Our vaccination pace does not stop the 3rd wave

Before each visit, a quick test and consistent wearing of a mask indoors – this is more effective in containing corona infections than closing the shops. These are the results of Kai Nagel’s simulation models. FOCUS Online spoke to the Berlin scientist.

Before the pandemic, the doctor of theoretical physics, Kai Nagel, only had to deal with viruses if he got a cold. The professor for traffic system planning at the TU Berlin normally calculates how, when and where people and vehicles move through everyday life. The coronavirus has been moving with us for a good year, to put it simply.

Therefore, since March 2020, Nagel and his team have been using the data from traffic planning for models that calculate and forecast the spread of Sars-CoV-2 based on various assumptions. The Federal Government and the Länder, together with other expert judgments, use the results as a basis for decisions on pandemic management.

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The models of the Berlin scientists, which were presented to the Prime Minister’s Conference last Monday as figures, curves and explanations, dampened any longing for relaxation. The models for the coming months showed what the current data from the Robert Koch Institute already suggested: The third wave of the pandemic will lead to significantly higher incidences than the second wave.

Even an accelerated vaccination program and the warmer weather cannot change this forecast. “Due to the dynamism of virus variant B.1.1.7, we are going into the warmer season with worse conditions than in 2020”, Kai Nagel summed up the current situation. FOCUS Online spoke to the Berlin scientist.

FOCUS Online: Mr Nagel, you showed the Prime Minister’s Conference on Monday a couple of rather frightening curves about the status and development of the pandemic. Were you responsible for the “Easter rest” that has since been withdrawn?

Kai Nagel: No, we did an Easter model – a big family celebration versus a cautious meeting – and you already saw that restraint is better than when everyone meets. But we left that out of our report in favor of other measures that we thought were more important.

The expert

Kai Nagel (55) is a doctor of theoretical physics and head of the Transport System Planning and Telematics Department at the TU Berlin. Together with a colleague, he has developed a well-known model for predicting traffic density, traffic flow or sudden traffic jams, the Nagel-Schreckenberg model. With the help of a simulation model based on cellular data, he has been investigating the question of how the coronavirus spreads in private and public spaces since the beginning of the pandemic. He regularly creates simulation models for various pandemic scenarios for the federal government.

Was it wrong that these additional rest and half rest days were withdrawn?

Nagel: Well, it would certainly have helped. But more important was the signal that we should be cautious at Easter, that is, as few contacts as possible. And that signal came across.

Who or what is to blame for the current number of infections, the mutant B.1.1.7 or are people more careless?

Nagel: It’s surely because of the mutation, which is so much more contagious – that changes the whole dynamics of the situation. The absolute numbers of variant B.1.1.7 already increased exponentially in January and February. And the restrictions of this time were not enough to deal with the mutation. B.1.1.7 increases the R-value by 35 to 70 percent. The vaccination lowers the R value by 15 percent if we assume that at the current vaccination rate in mid-April, almost 15 percent of the population will have at least one primary vaccination. That is not enough to compensate.

But there is also the fact that the overall level of activity has gone up, from 67 percent in January to 76 percent now.

What do you mean by activities? And what do the percentages tell us?

Nagel: Our simulations are based on anonymized cell phone data. Activity simply means the time someone is outside the home. We are usually out of the office for an average of eight hours, that would be 100 percent. Now it’s about six hours, that’s 76 percent. And that means that people are back on the road more and have more contacts than in January.

Comprehensive test strategies are required from all sides. What do your models say about the importance of rapid tests?

Nagel: We examined the effects of rapid tests on the infection process in three scenarios. If tests cover the areas of education, work and leisure to a large extent, the number of cases in the third wave can be effectively reduced, but in the best case only to the level of the end of December.

The Chancellor asked everyone to take a quick test once a week. Is this enough? How many quick tests would it make sense?

Nagel: In Berlin, 3.4 million rapid tests are currently planned per week. The question is how to distribute them. Tests would be sensible every time several people meet indoors for a long period of time without masks – at work, at school, at private meetings. Tests could make sense three times a week in schools, at work, when people sit together in the same room, at least twice a week, and less when working from home. The quick tests before private meetings inside are particularly important. If that doesn’t work, you should just get together outside or skip the meetings.

Inside and outside – is that the big difference between the risk of infection and safe meetings?

Nagel: At least an outdoor meeting is an alternative to the quick test. Our simulations clearly show: Infections practically only occur indoors (own household, private visits, work and school …) when there are longer and unprotected contacts there – i.e. without a mask. How important it is to wear a mask indoors can be seen, for example, from the fact that, according to the model, the complete closure of non-essential stores after the introduction of the mask requirement in retail has little additional effect on the infection rate.

Then you could allow outdoor catering despite the high number of infections?

Nagel: Well, you have to slowly approach that now. Outdoor catering should initially be allowed to open with a quick test. But based on what we know, it should also be possible without a rapid test. Almost all infections take place indoors: in the family, at private meetings, at work, etc.

Rapid tests can only contribute to pandemic containment if positive results lead to quarantine and contact tracking. Will people use the rapid tests responsibly?

Nagel: One could establish the rapid test as a social norm, that is to say, at private meetings, ask “Did you do a rapid test?”. If you haven’t done one and don’t want to stay, you have to lie to your family or friends. I do not consider such lies to be so likely. Surely there are people who ignore the results of self-tests. But I think you just have to start now and trust people’s sense of responsibility.

The Saarland wants to end the lockdown after Easter, a model test is running in Tübingen in which a broad-based test strategy allows an almost normal life. How does that fit in with the increasing number of infections and the fear of overcrowded intensive care units?

Nagel: I think model tests are very important. I see a lot in Berlin, especially in the cultural sector. Limited opening experiments are especially good so that you can see what you can open easily on a larger scale and then start with a nationwide step model. Regional differentiation is also appropriate for the lockdown or easing measures. But you have to get a grip on the fact that the infections are not carried back from high-incidence areas to the regions that are doing well.

While controlled lockdown openings are attempted on the one hand, there are demands for curfews on the other. How useful are they?

Nagel: We built curfews into a model once, and assumed that people would start their activity as usual and end exactly when an evening curfew takes effect. They meet then instead of the usual maybe from 7 to 11 p.m., only from 7 to 8 p.m. In reality, nobody will do that, so the meetings would be canceled and fewer contacts would be made. The purpose of the curfew would have been fulfilled. But what then happens in the long term are evasive reactions, the meetings then simply start earlier or are postponed to the weekend. Curfews would be a short-term effective measure if the situation grows completely over our heads, if intensive care units are overflowing or in a phase of very rapid exponential growth. In our opinion, curfews are not a permanent preventive measure.

In your “Modus Covid Report” you speak of coercive measures instead of appeals. That sounds brutal. What do you imagine by that?

Nagel: We took up a measure from Great Britain and developed it further. The British have had a successful infection control rule since January 5 that no longer makes private visits possible. This is formulated in such a way that one cannot be in public space for the purpose of a private visit. In our proposal, the British rule is softened by the fact that we would lift the ban on staying in public places for private visits with a valid rapid test certificate. This is a coercive measure that would be enforceable. In contrast, it is not possible to enforce a mask requirement indoors, especially at private meetings.

How do you get citizens to stick to the rules without coercion?

Nagel: The non-compulsory solution would be to rely on education. That would then be a campaign for meetings outdoors, on the balcony, terrace, the park bench or for the previous quick test. So the appeals aimed at passivity such as “stay at home”, “limit your contacts”, “have patience” could be supplemented with advertising campaigns that motivate and also give tips on which activities are possible and which protective measures can be taken can.

What’s next after the latest MPK resolutions?

Nagel: There is already a great deal in the government’s decision that we believe is right. The problem is that it doesn’t translate sufficiently into action. One does not take the path of coercion, nor does one underline the gentle appeals with an offensive advertising campaign.

And when is the third wave over again?

Nagel: End of May, June. But we now have to create more leeway with tests, vaccinations and other measures and not always just chase one development.

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