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COVID-19: Germany sees uptick of infections as schools reopen in most populous state

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A man wears a face mask in the colours of the German first division soccer team FC Schalke 04. Gelsenkirchen, Germany, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020.
A man wears a face mask in the colours of the German first division soccer team FC Schalke 04. Gelsenkirchen, Germany, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020.   -   Copyright  Martin Meissner/AP
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Germany’s government urged citizens Wednesday to keep their guard up and stick to public health guidelines, as new COVID-19 infections hit a three-month high and schools reopened in the country's most populous state.

The country's disease control authority on Wednesday reported 1,226 new infections. That was the highest number since early May, although the figure has topped 1,000 on several days recently.

Germany's response so far has widely been seen as successful in slowing the spread of the pandemic efficiently and quickly before Wednesday's figures.

Health Minister Jens Spahn said smaller and mid-sized outbreaks have occurred in almost all regions, largely driven by travellers returning from abroad and people partying or having family gatherings.

“This is worrying, without doubt,” Spahn told Deutschlandfunk radio. “And it can naturally lead to a new dynamic if we don’t all now exercise caution.”

In the early days of the pandemic, the average age of people infected was 50; it is now 34.

Spahn reiterated appeals to wear masks, keep distances and not go overboard in social settings while expressing scepticism about a new vaccine approved by Russia, the first country worldwide to do so.

“It’s not about being the first one,” Spahn said. “But it’s about having an effective, tested and therefore secure vaccine.”

Germany has recorded 218,519 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 9,207 deaths, according to the Robert Koch Institute, the national disease control centre. At the height of the pandemic in early April, there were about 6,000 new cases each day.

Many of the current new infections were people who contracted the virus during visits to the western Balkans, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and Spain, the Robert Koch Institute said.

The uptick comes as students are returning to school across the country, adding to concerns.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said restoring economic activity and restarting schools were both critical. He urged Germans not to grow lax about wearing masks or keeping distances, and to practice careful hygiene measures.

“We need to be careful and vigilant,” Seibert said.

Some 2.5 million children were returning to school Wednesday in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, which has the strictest rules in the country — including that students above elementary school age must wear masks at all times, including in class.