German states tighten virus rules as pandemic battle falters

BERLIN (AP) — Several German states moved closer to a “hard lockdown” Tuesday as officials warned that continued high coronavirus infections could overwhelm hospitals and that too many people were ignoring existing pandemic restrictions.

The governor of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, announced that schools and most stores will close from Monday until Jan. 10, as the eastern state recorded the Germany’s worst infection rates.

Figures published by Germany’s disease control agency showed the number of newly confirmed cases per 100,000 inhabitants reaching almost 320 in a week in Saxony — more than twice the national average of about 147.

In the neighboring state of Bavaria to the south, governor Markus Soeder urged regional lawmakers to back his government’s decision to declare a state of emergency and introduce tough new measures including a nighttime curfew, more home schooling and stricter border controls.

“The numbers are simply not going down,” Soeder told parliament in Munich and warned: ”The second wave is worse than the first.”

Germany managed to avoid the high number of infections and grim death tolls seen in some other large European nations in spring, and continues to have a lower overall fatality rate than countries such as Britain, France and Spain. But while restrictions imposed in November have slowed the exponential rise in cases, the numbers keep creeping up.

The Robert Koch Institute, the country’s disease control agency, reported 14,054 newly confirmed cases in the past 24 hours Tuesday, taking the total since the start of the outbreak to almost 1.2 million. The number of COVID-19-related deaths in the country rose by 423 to 19,342.

“Every four minutes a person in Germany dies of corona,” Soeder told lawmakers, calling the outbreak “the biggest disaster that our generation has ever experienced.”

The conservative governor, who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel after next year’s national election, took aim at people who have flouted or found loopholes in the existing rules.

Soeder said authorities in Bavaria would crack down on what he called “Gluehwein hopping” — the practice of going from one outdoor stall serving mulled wine to another to get around the closure of bars. He also slammed the far-right Alternative for Germany party and its members, who have railed against the restrictions and in some cases made unfounded claims that the coronavirus pandemic is over.

Saxony’s economy minister, Martin Dulig, likewise appealed to people to follow the rules in the state, long a stronghold of the far right.

“It can’t be right that the regions that reject masks and measures most strongly have the highest infection numbers,” he said. “There’s clearly a link.”

“It’s really a question of reason or unreason. And Saxony needs to become the land of reason again,” Dulig added.

Several others states said they won’t relax the rules limiting social contacts to five people over the Christmas period, as originally planned, while others planned to ban the sale of alcohol outdoors.

The announcements came hours after Germany’s national academy of sciences called for authorities to step up the restrictions.

“Despite the prospect of a vaccination campaign starting soon it is absolutely necessary from a scientific perspective to quickly and drastically reduce the still far too high number of new infections by means of a hard lockdown,” the experts said.

Merkel cautioned this week that the first coronavirus vaccine may not be available in Germany until early next year.

Authorities in the country said last month that they wanted mass vaccination centers ready by the middle of December. But the European Medicines Agency has since set a meeting for Dec. 29 to discuss approval for the vaccine made by German company BioNTech and its U.S. partner Pfizer.

In an Monday interview with Metropol FM, a Berlin radio station aimed at Germany’s Turkish community, Merkel said the vaccine “will probably be available and approved in Europe from the beginning of 2021, according to everything we now know.”

Britain’s regulator became the first worldwide last week to allow emergency use of the vaccine, and immunization began Tuesday.

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Follow AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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