BERLIN (AP) — Members of a new expert panel advising the German government on the coronavirus pandemic held their first meeting Tuesday, amid signs that government restrictions imposed in recent weeks are beginning to slow infection rates.
Germany's disease control agency reported 30,823 newly confirmed cases in the past 24 hours, compared with 45,753 two weeks ago. More than 470 new deaths from COVID-19 were also recorded.
Scientists say it's too early to say how the new omicron variant will affect Germany's infection rates, but the country's new health minister, Karl Lauterbach, expressed cautious optimism, tweeting Monday: “The situation is slowly stabilizing and the decline in case numbers is real.”
Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who recently succeeded longtime German leader Angela Merkel, appointed the 19-member panel — made up of virologists, clinical practitioners, ethicists and other experts — to provide advice to his new government.
Some of its members have in the past sparred publicly about the right way to deal with the outbreak, but officials suggested this could help ensure its advice is accepted more widely.
“The fact that the expert committee is constituted in a balanced way is one of its strengths,” Lauterbach, who is an epidemiologist by training, said after the panel’s first meeting.
He said the panel would likely provide new recommendations before Christmas on how to deal with the omicron variant.
Scholz's center-left coalition government has pledged greater transparency, but Lauterbach said the new panel's deliberations would take place behind closed doors.
“We have agreed confidentiality,” he told reporters.
Germany’s vaccination rate — 69.7% of the population is fully vaccinated — still falls short of the minimum 75% that authorities aim for. The number of people who have received a booster shot, now 24.7% of the population, is rising rapidly as the country's vaccination campaign picks up speed again.
The tougher measures introduced recently largely target unvaccinated people, who are now prevented from going to most nonessential stores, restaurants and cultural or sports venues.
Protests against the measures flared in several German states over the weekend and on Monday. Thousands of people protested plans for compulsory COVID-19 vaccinations in dozens of cities, including Rostock, Mannheim, Magdeburg and Berlin.
German security agencies have warned that parts of the Querdenken movement — a loose collection of groups opposed to the pandemic restrictions — are becoming increasingly radicalized.
Senior officials on Tuesday criticized protesters who clashed with police, with Bavaria's governor insisting that the lockdown measures for unvaccinated people had contributed significantly to the reduction in case numbers.
“Nine out of ten infections are still taking place due to unvaccinated people, and omicron will only make this worse,” Markus Soeder said.
Soeder praised Bayern Munich midfielder Joshua Kimmich for saying he planned to get vaccinated against the coronavirus after refusing to do so earlier and then falling sick with COVID-19.
“Maybe he'll serve as an example for a vaccination campaign, because the truth is that 90% of the vaccinations happening now are boosters and only 10% are first or second shots," said Soeder.
Saxony's governor Michael Kretschmer, whose state was badly hit by the recent surge of infections and like Bavaria had to transport ICU patients to other parts of Germany, said there was “light at the end of the tunnel” with hospitalizations predicted to decline in the coming 10 days.
Hendrick Wuest, the governor of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, announced that large indoor events at next year's carnival festivities will be canceled due to the pandemic.
In Germany, the colorful street parties are often accompanied by boozy sessions at which carnival clubs mock the government of the day, a tradition meant to let citizens vent their frustrations before the somber Lent season begins.
“Holding the mirror up to authority would be important now,” Wuest said, saying this was preferable to the threatening torch-lit marches some protesters have been staging lately.
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