As hospitals across Europe brace themselves for a surge in coronavirus cases over the holiday season because of the new omicron variant, Westerstede Clinical Center is cautiously hopeful it can weather the storm.
The region of northwestern Germany it mainly serves has among the lowest case numbers nationally, and an above-average vaccination rate.
“I think we’re on a stable level here,” said the head of the hospital's intensive care unit, Rene Lehr, when The Associated Press was recently granted rare access inside the facility.
The 43-year-old predicted his ICU might need to treat up to five COVID-19 patients during the period from Christmas to New Year — a number that staff can confidently handle.
In part that's because it enjoys benefits many other hospitals don't have. It is operated in cooperation between regional authorities and the German military, helping ensure it has state-of-the art equipment, spare beds and additional staff who work there while they are on standby for possible troop deployments.
The military's vast resources — and its desire to keep medics at the cutting edge of their profession — mean this little-known facility was among the first in Germany to treat people with COVID-19.
In the spring of 2020 the German air force flew in patients from Italy, where hospitals were struggling to cope with a sudden influx of seriously sick people. The same happened recently, when Germany's eastern state of Saxony had more ICU patients than it could handle.
Yet even with the additional resources, Lehr and his staff can’t perform miracles when it comes to COVID-19. Statistics suggest that one of the three severely ill patients who were being treated in the ICU on Friday won’t recover.
The odds are worse for unvaccinated patients. While the hospital sees cases in people who have and haven't had the shot, those without the vaccination tend to be far worse off.
Among the vaccinated, those who need to be hospitalized either had their last shot a long time ago, are elderly, suffer from underlying conditions or received a vaccine other than those made by BioNTech-Pfizer or Moderna, which are mainly used in Germany.
Lehr has no doubt that vaccination is effective.
“Otherwise I believe that, given the (infection) numbers we currently have in Germany, the occupancy of ICU beds would be significantly higher than it already is," he said.
Despite recently seeing all-time records for the number of newly confirmed cases — topping 70,000 on a single day — the rate of hospitalization in Germany is lower than at the end of last year, when only a fraction of the population had been vaccinated.
Those patients that end up in Westerstede's intensive care unit are cared for by people like Stefan, a senior nurse on the ward who asked not to publish his full name for privacy reasons and as it is standard protocol in the German military.
As a military nurse, Stefan has been deployed to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Mali, where he was when the pandemic started in early 2020.
“It was a bit surreal,” he said of reading about the outbreak while on deployment to the North African nation.
“It wasn’t till we got back to Germany and the case numbers started to suddenly rise, and the first patients came in, that we fully realized that was beginning to happen here,” he recalled.
Like millions of health care workers around the world, Stefan found out how difficult it is to treat COVID-19, especially when wearing the protective equipment that medics have to put on every time they enter one of the isolation rooms where coronavirus patients are kept.
He says his military training helped, but acknowledges the strain his civilian colleagues are under; several have quit over the past two years, disillusioned by the burden placed on a profession that demands much but often pays comparatively little.
“It’s a very arduous, demanding job,” he said.
Still, Stefan said he was proud of what he and his colleagues have achieved during the pandemic.
“This was a very trying time for all of us, and it still is,” he said. “The way the team stuck together and the camaraderie, I think that’s going to stay with us for a long time after it all ends. If it ever ends.”
“I think we’re going to be dealing with this issue for a long time," he added. "I don’t think this is going to be the last variant.”
Lehr, the chief physician, agrees there's no telling what twist the pandemic will take next. After seeing its death toll from COVID-19 pass 100,000 and the imposition of new restrictions, daily case numbers have eased somewhat recently.
Still, the country's health minister warned Friday that “omicron puts everything we've seen during the pandemic so far in the shade.” The Netherlands, which borders Germany just a few kilometers from Westerstede, on Saturday announced a new lockdown because of the variant.
“We live from one day to the next, one week to the next, and simply see which patients we get," said Lehr. "And the ones that come, we try to treat as best we can.”