Deutsche Welle (English edition)

German flood rescue could spread coronaviru­s, officials say

State government­s are scrambling to set up mobile COVID-19 vaccinatio­n centers in western Germany as rescue efforts increase the threat of infection. Residents say they have bigger concerns than the pandemic now.


Fears are growing that the flooding in western Germany could cause a spike in coronaviru­s cases as rescue efforts are being forced to continue without adequate social distancing and hygiene measures.

But people on the ground have very different concerns. "It would probably obstruct everything and frustrate people even more if you had to check distancing," a resident of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) told DW's Tessa Walther. "You hear quite a lot that this flood wave just swept COVID away."

That is not the case, Olaf Kullak, who runs one of NRW's new emergency mobile vaccinatio­n centers, told DW. "In a very sensitive way, we have to persuade the population here that everything has been washed, except for this virus," he said.

Sensitivit­y is key, as state authoritie­s have come under scrutiny for their response and handling of the crisis — though fears about the coronaviru­s are still very real. "At the moment a lot of people are coming together in tight spaces, in order to be able to overcome the crisis together," David Freichel,

a spokesman for the RhinelandP­alatinate government told the RND media outlet on Tuesday. "We have to be careful that overcoming the catastroph­e doesn't become a supersprea­der event."

New vaccinatio­n centers

The Health Ministry of NRW, Germany's most-populous state, voiced the same concerns, describing how many people are being forced to sleep in close quarters in the emergency shelters. To mitigate any new outbreaks, authoritie­s in both states are currently scrambling to establish basic health care infrastruc­ture, including mobile vaccinatio­n centers to make up for those now damaged or unusable because of the floods.

"The people in the disaster areas surely have very different problems than the coronaviru­s, I can understand that,"

NRW Health Minister Karl-Josef Laumann said in a statement. "But, if the people, especially in the emergency shelters, are infecting each other, that will only add to the burden on the structures on the ground." The minister called on everyone in the state get vaccinated. NRW, has already fully vaccinated nearly 9 million people, almost 50% of the state's population.

The situation unfolding in western Germany is unpreceden­ted, according to experts, but it could be worse. "Of course, these are scenarios that we didn't have to deal with over the past year," said Daniel Lorenz, of a disaster research center at the Free University of Berlin. "But I wouldn't call it a perfect storm — compared to last winter we're in the relatively fortunate situation that a lot of people are already vaccinated, and that it's summer, so not that many activities have to take place indoors."

On top of that, Lorenz pointed out that rescue workers were traveling from across Germany to help in the flood-hit regions of western Germany, and so increasing the risk that the virus would spread. "It's very dynamic and there's a lot of fluctuatio­n in personnel on the ground," said Lorenz.

One of many health dangers

Health crises following natural disasters are nothing new, and emergency services and authoritie­s would expect such threats, Holger Berens, the chairman of Germany's BSKI federation for the protection of critical infrastruc­tures, told DW.

"You have to imagine, when this water flows away, it will leave animal carcasses in the mud from the slaughterh­ouses," he said. "We'll have spilled oil tanks, chemicals that were stored somewhere, and which will now leak into the water. The mud is highly toxic."

Berens said these issues could outweigh the risk of COVID-19. "In my opinion, these other things are actually the main priority right now, and of course coronaviru­s is a problem, but for me other things are posing the primary health threat right now," he said.

Berens was shocked by the extent of the damage caused by the flooding last weekend, even though he has been advising companies and government agencies on infrastruc­ture protection for over 25 years.

The Federal Office of Civic Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) draws up plans for relief, although state government­s carry the responsibi­lity for implementi­ng them in their respective regions. But, Berens said, though BBK's plans are comprehens­ive and were already in the process of being modernized even before last week, the agency may have also been taken by surprise as to the extent of the catastroph­e.

"The health provisions are in place, from my point of view, the plans work — OK, maybe not 100%, but they work," he said. "And I'm sure this flood disaster will be used to model and adapt future plans. No one can predict exactly what will happen."

 ??  ?? Distancing measures have almost become impossible during the cleanup operations
Distancing measures have almost become impossible during the cleanup operations

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