Switzerland’s coronavirus epidemic appears to be stabilizing, a top health official said on Tuesday, crediting the country’s containment measures with slowing the spread.
Asked when the restrictions could be relaxed, Daniel Koch, head of infectious diseases at the federal health agency, said there was no single numerical target. Authorities are using several measures to track the virus, ranging from new infections and hospitalizations to the number of patients in intensive care units, he said. A qualitative analysis is also part of the picture.
“We take the different numbers and try to make an assessment out of them—together with the specialists and the cantons,” he said at a news conference.
European governments are seeing growing evidence that their nationwide lockdowns are paying off. But in a region that has suffered more than 60 percent of deaths worldwide, officials must balance the need to reanimate their economies against the risk of reigniting the spread.
Neighboring Austria, which has far fewer coronavirus cases than Switzerland, plans to allow small shops, hardware stores, and garden centers to reopen next week. Norway and Denmark are looking to open some schools this month.
The World Health Organization on Tuesday urged countries not to lift their anti-COVID-19 measures too soon.
“One of the most important parts is not to let go of the measures too early in order not to have a fall back again,” said WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier in a virtual briefing.
Switzerland declared a state of emergency on March 16, closing shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment and leisure facilities until April 19. The government is working on a post-lockdown plan once health officials say it’s safe to resume activities.
Since Monday, the number of positive COVID-19 tests has increased by 590 to 22,242, Koch said. At least 641 people have died and more than 400 remain on respiratory support in intensive care.
“It seems to be stabilizing, but it’s too early to say the problem is solved.” Koch said.
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At least 613 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Switzerland, but that number isn’t a reliable measure of the outbreak. The Swiss government is abandoning efforts to keep a precise count of coronavirus cases to focus instead on easing the burden on the healthcare system and protecting the most vulnerable—the elderly and those with preexisting conditions. “The government has decided that they will only test people who are at risk, who have strong symptoms,” said Michael Hengartner, president of the ETH Board. “Young people, who might have weak symptoms, will simply be asked to stay at home to minimize contagion.” The Cantonal Hospital of Lucerne has received a recommendation from the government to limit testing to the most vulnerable or severe cases, said spokesman Markus von Rotz. “Only patients who are hospitalized and health care staff will be tested for coronavirus,” said Claude Kaufmann, a spokesman for Hirslanden Private Hospital Group, which operates 17 hospitals. “Patients with fever and cough must stay at home so that they do not infect anyone.” The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health confirmed that the cases could be far higher than reported and that “people at especially high risk are tested as a priority.“ No test, no infection This raises the question of whether the count reflects the true scale of the outbreak. Many people have been keeping tabs on the daily tally from the federal health office, relying on it to provide a measure of the severity of the situation in Switzerland. The country reported its third coronavirus death Tuesday as the outbreak worsens in neighboring Italy, which has logged over 9,000 infections and 460 deaths. It also marks a change in strategy from the early days of the outbreak, when the government ramped up testing following the first confirmed case on Feb. 25. Back then, even mild cases were being counted and traced in the effort to contain the crisis. The Swiss Federal Council said Friday that tracing the infection would continue “as long as possible.” At the same time, it indicated that protecting people by minimizing contact—at work or social events—was now the bigger priority. Large events have been banned across the country but, unlike in Italy, no blanket travel restrictions have been imposed. And the Swiss border remains open to commuters from Italy. “With the infection rate that this virus has, it will basically cross across the human population,” Hengartner said. “It will become a pandemic. And the challenge for governments is to keep the infection rate low enough that we can always manage the patients that need to get hospitalized.”
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