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BERLIN — Is Gütersloh where Europe’s battle to prevent a second coronavirus wave starts?
A regional lockdown announced Tuesday affecting more than 500,000 locals near Germany’s industrial heartland offers a laboratory for how Europe can manage new outbreaks of COVID-19.
That includes thorny questions of how to administer those measures in local communities and whom to blame for contagion.
“At the moment it’s a local outbreak,” said Ralf Reintjes, professor of epidemiology and surveillance at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. But if the approach fails in Gütersloh and in other towns such as Göttingen, where a tower block is in quarantine, he warned, Germany will “probably have a second wave.”
Ground zero in Gütersloh is a slaughterhouse owned by Tönnies, a meat-processing company. Of around 7,000 workers at the facility, more than 1,500 have tested positive in recent days. So far, local transmission into the general population has been limited, local authorities insisted on Tuesday — the same day the lockdown was announced, followed by an extension of the measures to the neighboring district of Warendorf.
“This is huge, but it’s possible [to contain it] if you’re quite tough with your measures and smart” — Ansgar Gerhardus, professor at the University of Bremen
Police are being deployed for mobile test facilities while the new lockdown — effectively returning the districts to the quarantine introduced nationwide in March — will run until June 30.
“The purpose is to calm the situation, to extend the tests now to determine whether the virus is already widespread among Tönnies employees or not,” said Armin Laschet, the region’s premier and a potential contender to replace Angela Merkel as federal chancellor.
The situation shines a light both on efforts to manage the health crisis and on working standards in Europe at a plant dependent on imported labor.
Peter Liese, a conservative MEP and trained doctor, cited the cold temperatures in meat-packing facilities such as the Tönnies plant. “This is normally conditions in wintertime … when it’s more dangerous to be infected.”
Working conditions are also to blame, he said, pointing to cramped workers’ housing and the firm’s reliance on temporary contracts that, among other things, deny sick leave. Liese said he’s teaming up with colleagues to push the European Commission to do more to address these issues.
The point was echoed by Ansgar Gerhardus, a professor at the Institute for Public Health and Nursing Research at the University of Bremen. For him, it’s no coincidence that other large workplaces like Mercedes-Benz or Bayer — where people work in close contact but are offered sick days and better contracts — have avoided similar outbreaks.
“It’s high time to look at these conditions … controls have to go up,” Gerhardus said.
He added that the infection must have been circulating for a while for so many people to test positive now, as “one person can’t have infected 1,500.”
Slaughterhouses in other parts of Europe have also been hotbeds of infection.
In Yorkshire in the U.K., authorities placed a slaughterhouse under lockdown after an outbreak. Similarly, a facility in Wales, where over 150 people tested positive for coronavirus, was also shut down.
Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that abattoirs are just one type of “institutional amplifier” in which the coronavirus is more likely to spread. Other examples include care homes, cruise liners and prisons.
In combination with the tough working conditions and the cold, slaughterhouses are noisy, explained McKee, making shouting a necessity and thereby aiding in the spread of the virus via droplets.
But it’s not just slaughterhouses where clusters of cases are emerging. In France, localized groupings of cases have been seen in Normandy, with small outbreaks in towns across the region. Over 100 people are also suspected to have coronavirus in the quarantined tower block in Göttingen.
Test, trace, isolate
Germany has favored a decentralized approach in locking down individual areas where outbreaks occur. Reintjes agrees with this strategy, arguing that whole states and countries need not be locked down for local outbreaks.
“Testing, identifying of cases and then contact tracing and putting people under quarantine, however difficult this might be … is absolutely crucial in a situation like this,” said Reintjes.
More importantly, contact tracers need to have local knowledge, be well trained and sufficiently staffed for their work to be effective, he added.
McKee also insists on the importance of local knowledge.
As part of its response, the Robert Koch Institute dispatched 15 officials to Gütersloh and three to the Warendorf district to bolster the contact tracing operation in the state, the federal health ministry said. Locally, authorities are pledging free tests for anyone across the districts.
“Contact tracers who are operating locally, who have the knowledge of where people are living and where they come from … are able to identify where the risks are likely to be,” McKee said.
“[But] this is going to be exceptionally difficult when you have a remote call center-based system where people do not have that knowledge,” he said, pointing to the situation in the U.K.
For the University of Bremen’s Gerhardus, the important thing now is to act decisively.
“We have to be careful that it doesn’t become the German Ischgl,” he said, referring to the Austrian resort that proved to be a key spreading point for vacationers returning after their ski trips in February and March.
The danger is that with summer holidays approaching, many people will want to avoid lockdowns so they can keep their bookings, Gerhardus noted.
“We’ve had outbreaks of this kind,” he said, pointing to a similar surge in cases at another slaughterhouse in the nearby town of Coesfeld. “It was smaller, around 300 people. But they managed to contain it in a short time and it didn’t spread to the [wider] population.
“This is huge, but it’s possible [to contain it] if you’re quite tough with your measures and smart,” he added.