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German Health Officials Warn About 2nd Coronavirus Wave

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Germany has been praised for how it was able to curb the spread of COVID-19 early on. But now, for the first time in three months, Germany is recording more than a thousand new cases every day. And now health officials are worried about a second wave. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It was late June. Summer had just started. The virus began surging in the United States, but Germany had managed to keep its numbers stable at below 500 new cases a day and was on the verge of reopening its borders for summer travel. Germany's top virologist Christian Drosten was not celebrating.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DAS CORONAVIRUS UPDATE")

CHRISTIAN DROSTEN: (Through interpreter) I think we're in for major problems within two months if we don't sound the alarm.

SCHMITZ: Drosten was recording the final episode of the season for the country's No. 1 podcast, "Das Coronavirus Update." And he ended it with a warning to all Germans who were acting as if the virus was a distant memory.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DAS CORONAVIRUS UPDATE")

DROSTEN: (Through interpreter) What we're seeing right now simply undoes all the work we did this spring when we pulled together and considered others.

SCHMITZ: By the end of July, the head of Germany's disease control and prevention agency faced reporters with a frown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOTHAR WIELER: (Through interpreter) The latest development in COVID-19 cases in Germany is, for me and the Robert Koch Institute, of grave concern.

SCHMITZ: Lothar Wieler had bad news. A recent poll had shown Germans saw the coronavirus as less of a threat than before, and they were growing tired of social distancing. And Wieler warned of a second wave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WIELER: (Through interpreter) I'd like to take this opportunity to make something quite clear. How the pandemic develops is up to each and every one of us.

SCHMITZ: Four days later in Berlin...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: ...An estimated 20,000 people packed Berlin's streets in blatant disregard of social distancing. From both the extreme right or left, they have one thing in common - they believe authorities are using the virus as a tool for social control. Some of them hold signs that read, we are the second wave. One prominent politician had another name for them, Covidiots (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

SCHMITZ: Karl Lauterbach, an epidemiologist and member of parliament, has yet another name for them, super-spreaders. Lauterbach, who's helped Germany's federal government come up with a new approach to trace infections, says young people who attend big events, parties or even school will soon be the focus for health authorities.

KARL LAUTERBACH: You quickly address every new case and ask if that new case was around at a cluster event, which is an event for super-spreading when it was most infectious.

SCHMITZ: Rather than tracing every single person who's infected, they'd instead focus on cluster events, and everyone at the event would immediately be put under a week-long quarantine.

In the meantime, restaurants in Berlin, like this crowded one, continue to seat strangers within half a meter of each other. They don't bother collecting contact information in case of an outbreak, and they don't require masks. It's been like this since the city relaxed restrictions two weeks ago. Lauterbach says misguided approaches like Berlin's will contribute even more to Germany's next wave of the virus, a wave Lauterbach hopes will be met with a strict response, lest Germany lose its model status of getting this pandemic under control.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WAR ON DRUGS SONG, "UNDER THE PRESSURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.