How the severely hit province of Tyrol made it to decrease infection rate to 0
On the 27th of February the World Health Organisation said that no country should make the fatal mistake of assuming it will be spared the coronavirus. The coronavirus started in China, found its way to Europe and also to the province of Tyrol (Austria). All of us know what has happened since the end of February – COVID-19 has been spreading across the world.
Tyrol, known as “The heart of the Alps”, got severely hit by COVID-19. There are two main reasons for this. First of all, Tyrol borders Italy, which suffers from highest infection rates. Secondly, it’s the strong focus on international tourism with 50 Mio. overnight stays per year. With 61 overnight stays per inhabitant Tyrol is among world´s top countries in terms of this ratio.
At the end of February, the province, with a total of 751 140 inhabitants, counted two COVID-19 infected persons – a 24-year-old couple who travelled from the area of Bergamo to Innsbruck. Two weeks later the provincial authorities got informed that several Icelandic tourists were infected with the virus during their stay in Ischgl (Tyrol). Due to this information the local authorities asked everybody showing flu-like symptoms to get tested for corona. A barkeeper got tested positive on March 7th. That day immediate measures were implemented. Three days later all bars in Ischgl were closed and on March 13th all skiing areas in the “Paznaun valley”, where Ischgl is located, were shut down. On March 15th all skiing areas in the province of Tyrol were closed as well. Taking in consideration that ski tourism is one of the biggest economic drivers in Tyrol, this decision was a hard cut for the province, but it was absolutely necessary. Today it is easy to blame the government of Tyrol for not acting sooner. However, the outbreak of the virus was completely new for all countries and regions around the globe. There were no experiences of combatting the COVID-19 pandemic and all decisions made were based on the recommendations of leading medical experts. At the beginning of March data was lacking and many details about COVID-19 were not known. With the knowledge we possess today some decisions would have been made earlier or differently. Therefore, it is necessary to evaluate all steps made – in Tyrol, in Austria, in Europe and around the globe. We need to build on the lessons learned from COVID-19 to be better prepared for the future. The search for a scapegoat does not change the current situation. Now it is important that we fight together against COVID-19 by collaborating on a vaccine. It needs to be our common goal to prevent hospitals from collapsing and open borders and all businesses again.
Thanks to restrictive measures the healthcare system did not collapse in Tyrol and hospitals could take care of intensive care patients from Italy (e.g. South Tyrol). With this step Tyrol eased the pressure on the South Tyrolian health system. This was a small but important contribution in terms of European solidarity. Especially at the beginning of the crises we experienced a lack of this solidarity as countries blamed each other for spreading the virus and not reacting fast enough. Although, from the beginning on, there was a tremendous solidarity among the society in Tyrol. Many people lent a hand to those who are elderly or disabled. Moreover, people have started buying regional products to support local businesses.
Tyrol´s economy has come to a standstill after the government closed all non-essential businesses. Only grocery stores, medical facilities, post offices and banks remained open. The province has experienced a massive rise in unemployment. The unemployment rate increased by 199% compared to the same month in the previous year and has hit a historic high since WW II. To get companies through this difficult time, the national and provincial government filled a crises fund with approximately € 38 Billion. With state money the government tries to keep companies alive so that economy can be restarted after the crises. Several measures such as the extension of “short-term work” and granting generous credit assistance were set to protect jobs.
Since mid-March Austrians are not supposed to leave their homes except going to the supermarket or the pharmacy, going to work, if working from home is not possible and to check on housebound people.
In order to stop the spread of the virus the government of Tyrol set stricter regulations and put the entire province in quarantine for at least three weeks and some municipalities for more than 6 weeks. Wearing face masks got compulsory in all supermarkets by the beginning of April and got extended to public transport. The fast and restrictive reactions and physical distancing have led to a steady decline. The drastic measures gave Austria the opportunity to get out of the crisis more quickly and measures have got gradually eased since the end of the Easter holiday. Austria was the first country in Europe to ease its lockdown against the pandemic. The slow return to normality began on April 14th. Small shops and garden centers reopened under restrictions such as wearing masks and keeping distance. As of May 1st other business such as hair salons will be allowed to reopen and there is a possibility that restaurants and cafes would be allowed to start operating again in mid-May.
On April 19th, for the first time since the beginning of March, no new infection was reported in Tyrol, although 743 people were tested that day. Out of approximately 43.000 tested people in Tyrol 3.339 got a positive test result. The numbers are strong evidence that stringent social distancing measures are working.