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Bonn in its second corona year: City's crisis management under the microscope

Bonn in its second corona year : City's crisis management under the microscope

The pandemic poses unprecedented challenges for local authorities. The city of Bonn scores high points with a well-organised vaccination centre. But some projects, such as the possible use of air filters in schools, are weak, and there is room for improvement in the communication with local residents.

When the government’s so-called emergency brake expires on 30 June, it will seem like a relic. In the meantime, the number of infections with coronavirus have fallen so far that drastic measures have long since given way to relaxations. As with the infection figures, there were ups and downs in the crisis management by the city of Bonn. Sometimes things went well, other times rather badly, and pragmatic solutions were often needed. Here is an analysis.

Crisis team: City Director Wolfgang Fuchs has headed the committee since the beginning of the pandemic. The most important person there since the end of the year has probably been the fire chief Jochen Stein. His troops are responsible for ensuring the running of the vaccination campaign. Head of the Health Department Susanne Engels, who took over from her predecessor in the middle of the pandemic, also has important tasks: The health department must primarily take care of the people who have come into contact with the virus. This structure is now working well.

“We have been and continue to be a 'team caution' because we want to keep the incidence rate down. In this context, I would have liked to see stricter regulations on working from home included in the federal emergency brake measures,” says Mayor Katja Dörner. She baulks, however, at the curfew. She has always stressed that she does not think much of this. Aerosol researchers had described this restriction as ineffective because the risk of infection was mainly indoors. “Unless we were forced to impose a curfew or restrictions on leaving home, we didn't do it.”

Communication: Opinions are divided on the crisis team's communication strategy: Dörner says the public has always been promptly and clearly informed. However, the city also had to keep data protection and the personal rights of those concerned in mind, she explained. The perception from the outside: Several requests were often required to obtain concrete information, for example about infection rates in care homes for the elderly, in nurseries and schools, which, like the data collected only recently from the individual districts, were and are usually only announced once a week. On top of this, the city district data is from the preceding week. But the bottom line is that communication has improved significantly.

Health Department: The measures for coping with the corona crisis - such as identifying those who had tested positive, quarantine measures and contact tracing - were a challenge for the Bonn health department in the first few months, as was the case for all health departments. Never before had the staff been confronted with tasks of this magnitude, and the department was not set up accordingly at first, Dörner admits. Until autumn 2020, much of the work was still done on paper, which slowed down contact tracing, for example, and even made it impossible with rising incidence rates.

Over time, the staff found a routine, and relief was provided by employees from other departments. But the turning point came with the Bundeswehr who reorganised the contact tracing process and made it more efficient by dividing the work into teams. Previously, one staff member had followed up on one contact. Many things were solved in the short official channels, such as the problem with understanding the communications. A list was made of staff members who speak foreign languages and could also help out outside office hours. Apparently, the higher decision-making levels were not aware of this. In the case of the three large Arab families from Bad Godesberg, where almost all members had contracted the virus, the press office publicly announced that they were relying on German-speaking family members for translation.

Many work processes that had to be done by hand in the beginning have now been digitised. Dörner praises the readiness of staff seconded from other offices to help out at the health department. There were only a few colleagues who refused to cooperate, she said.

Vaccination campaign: Ever since the first vaccination at the end of December, the vaccination campaign has been slowed down by shortages. Mobile vaccination teams were first on the road visiting care homes for the elderly, and now up to 2,000 people are being immunised daily at the WCCB. The professional fire department who organises the centre, has gradually ramped up capacity; initially they were prepared for 1,200 vaccinations per day. “The operation of the vaccination centre has been very demanding on the fire department. However, all the efforts have been justified by the success of the vaccination campaign achieved together with the other departments involved, the volunteer forces and the WCCB team,” says fire service spokesperson Frank Frenser. There will be some relief from September onwards, when the vaccination centre will be closed and immunisation transferred to the doctors' surgeries.

Day-care centres: Katja Dörner is one of the city leaders who is more reluctant to implement relaxations. The federal emergency brake adopted in the spring provides for emergency day-care operations if the incidence rate exceeds 165, but regulation is left up to the respective state. NRW Family Minister Joachim Stamp (FDP) relied on the parents' sense of responsibility that they would voluntarily look after their children at home. In contrast, the year before, only key workers were allowed to take advantage of the emergency day-care operations. Dörner says that she wanted to reinstate this regulation but did not receive permission from Düsseldorf to do so. “We are in favour of reducing childcare services as much as possible,” Dörner criticised.

Schools: The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the municipal school buildings. Many classrooms are small, and in a lot of schools it is impossible to correctly implement the recommendation for cross ventilation because the rooms only have windows on one side. The use of air purification equipment has also not been resolved. The city's ban on schools operating equipment purchased by parents at their own expense caused resentment among families. They referred to studies by the University of the German Armed Forces and the Goethe University, which confirmed that viruses can be filtered out using ventilation units with Hepa filter 14. The city is indeed investigating the use of such units once again. However, the findings are not yet available - even after several weeks.

In addition, digitalisation in schools is still in its infancy. It is true that the pandemic triggered a surge. 9,300 iPads were distributed to children and youngsters who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to participate in distance learning at home, and another 3,870 to teachers. However, many schools still lack full wi-fi coverage, fast internet and the staff to deal with the technology. The city's new staffing plan lists 36 posts for digitisation. Another three will be created in addition, just for the schools. This is still too little, experts say. All secondary schools and individual primary schools have broadband connections. The remaining primary and special schools are to be connected through a federal programme by the end of 2022.

Swimming pools and sport facilities: In 2020, the crisis team did not initially want to open the outdoor pools. Things turned out differently - in May the pools were allowed to open, with major restrictions as still in force in 2021. The appointment booking system seems to be quite reliable. In the meantime, sports halls may also be used again. One of the larger buildings, the Josef-Strunck-Halle in Endenich, however, remains closed due to considerable structural defects. It is questionable why the Municipal Facility Management in Bonn did not check all sports halls long ago during the pandemic, so that Endenich could have reacted earlier.

Incidence rates in local districts: The city focused much too late on districts where a particularly large number of people live in a confined space, such as in Tannenbusch, Dransdorf, Bad Godesberg Nord, Heiderhof, Lannesdorf and Medinghoven. Corona infections in three large families in Bad Godesberg were partly responsible for the fact that the incidence rate in Bonn stagnated at a high level for a longer period of time, while it was on the decline in other municipalities. To date, there are no proposals on the table on how, despite vaccine shortages, to visit these districts with a mobile vaccination team and vaccinate the people there. Other cities such as Cologne, which have been allocated special vaccine quotas, are much faster and have been analysing small-scale infection cases for a long time. The city of Bonn only points out that it has not received any vaccine from the state for such campaigns.

It is also only now that the city is specifically promoting vaccination in densely populated districts, in part also through charitable institutions, in several languages. The flyer, however, seems to have been hastily cobbled together and contains too much text. There are no information brochures available about corona and the corona rules in the common national languages of the residents in corona hotspots. Here, too, Cologne is ahead: in the vaccination centre, for example, everything is displayed in Turkish and English as well as German.

(Original text: Lisa Inhoffen and Nicolas Ottersbach, Translation: Caroline Kusch)