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Austria is going into full lockdown and will mandate vaccines as COVID cases surge

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Austria, the government has announced it will enforce new COVID restrictions, including a national lockdown for both unvaccinated and vaccinated people. That starts Monday. Austria also plans to introduce mandatory vaccinations for all citizens starting in February. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from Berlin to talk about this. Hello again, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So this is pretty drastic, some of the most drastic measures I think we've seen in any country since the pandemic began. Why? What is going on in Austria that drove the government to do this?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Austria is in the midst of a health care crisis. At no time since the pandemic started have so many of its people been infected. And hospitals have reached their capacity, and patients who need help are now being turned away because intensive care units are out of beds. The infection rate in Austria is around 1,000 per 100,000 people over the past week, one of the worst in Europe. And this is connected to what is a rather low vaccination rate. One-third of the population, around 3 million people, remain unvaccinated.

So today Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg announced a raft of new measures. Apart from imposing mandatory vaccines on all citizens starting February 1 of next year, he also said that the entire country, including the vaccinated, would be under a mandatory lockdown starting Monday for at least 10 days, possibly double that. Here is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER SCHALLENBERG: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, Mary Louise, he's saying here that sustainably increasing vaccination rates is the only way to get out of this vicious cycle of virus waves and lockdown discussions once and for all. He said, we don't want a fifth wave nor a sixth wave. He said he's aware that he is asking an enormous amount from the vaccinated citizens of his country because they now have to face restrictions once again...

KELLY: Yeah.

SCHMITZ: ...Because too many Austrians have shown a lack of solidarity. And, of course, he's referring to the many Austrians who refuse to be vaccinated.

KELLY: And what is going on with that group? Why is the vaccination rate so low in Austria? I have to say I'm a little surprised because in other parts of Europe, like Italy right next door, it's much higher.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, yeah. And there's a few reasons, and Italy's part of it. You know, first off, Austria and, to a large extent, Germany were spared early on in this pandemic. When the first waves hit, both countries managed to keep infections under control, and their health care systems performed pretty well. That was not the case in countries like Italy or Spain, where the first wave of the pandemic spread quickly and filled hospitals. So when vaccinations became available, Italians, Spaniards and other countries that have suffered so badly early on in the pandemic were vigilant about getting vaccinated because there were so many people who knew someone who had either had the virus or died from it. That just wasn't the case in Austria and Germany until now.

Another reason for Austria's low vaccination rate is something Chancellor Schallenberg hinted at in his press conference today - Austria's influential right-wing Freedom Party. Schallenberg had harsh words for that party and its followers today, saying that their criticism of vaccinations is an attack on the country's health care system.

KELLY: Stay with that because I'm trying to imagine the response from those right-wing groups and their followers to this new order - lockdown and mandatory vaccinations.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, not happy, as you can imagine. Earlier this month, when Chancellor Schallenberg announced a similar mandate that all the country's unvaccinated would soon be under lockdown orders, there were massive rallies in the country's biggest cities. Expect more of that as February approaches.

Some Austrians are questioning whether this new mandate is even constitutional, and Chancellor Schallenberg addressed that today, too, saying it is and that Austria has done it before with smallpox. But I think it's important to point out, too, that when the chancellor began announcing these new measures that were singling out the unvaccinated, many of them got their shots. This past couple of weeks, Austria has seen record daily totals of people getting their vaccines for COVID-19.

KELLY: That is NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz getting us up to speed on what is happening in Austria. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE'S "LOVE AND MATHEMATICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.