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VIENNA
No Omicron cases in Vienna hospitals so far
There are currently no patients with the highly contagious Omicron variant in hospital in the Austrian capital, a positive sign amid expectations that overall case numbers will rise rapidly, according to Peter Hacker, City Councillor for Public Health, Social Affairs and Sport for Vienna.
Published: 31 December 2021 17:44 CET
People wait in line in front of a vaccination station that is installed at a BILLA Plus supermarket in Vienna where the Omicron Covid-19 strain has been the dominant variant since December 26th. ALEX HALADA / AFP
“So far, not a single person with Omicron has been admitted to hospital in Vienna,” Hacker told Austrian newspaper Standard
“This is the case for standard and intensive care wards and is quite remarkable,” he added.
There is a delay before seriously ill patients end up in hospital after becoming infected, but the data for the initial phase of the Omicron wave seems to provide some grounds for optimism.
As of Thursday, a total of 1,870 people had tested positive for the highly contagious Omicron variant in the capital to date, 540 of those cases were from the last two days. Omicron has been the dominant strain since St Stephen’s Day on December 26th.
Hacker is expecting to see record case numbers in January. He did not want to give specific figures, but in response to whether the capital could see 10,000 new infections per day, he said: “it will be like that”.
Inpatients are unvaccinated
Hacker also referenced statistics, which showed that for Vienna “more unvaccinated people were ending up in hospital [with Covid] than ever before”, thereby demonstrating that vaccination worked. 
Around 41 percent of the total population has had a booster vaccination so far and 71 percent have an active vaccination certificate.
From November 8th to 14th, there were 166 unvaccinated inpatients and 39 fully vaccinated inpatients with Covid-19 in non-intensive-care hospital wards. This compares with December 20th to 26th when there were 179 inpatients who hadn’t had a jab and just 19 who were fully vaccinated.
Cut quarantine period
Nonetheless, with case numbers expected to rise substantially in the country, the number of people off sick with Covid-19 or in quarantine could still become a problem even if these don’t translate into high numbers of hospital admissions.
Hacker is therefore calling for the quarantine period to be shortened to five days or a week and for quarantine rules to be relaxed.
Italy, for example, recently announced that it would scrap quarantine rules for vaccinated and recently recovered people who were in contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19. 
The Austrian Minister of Health was currently looking into relaxing the quarantine rules for triple-vaccinated people. This was announced by Austria’s Chief Medical Officer Katharina Reich on Thursday on Austrian news show Zeit im Bild 1.
A relaxation of the rules would have “to be consistent in a step-by-step approach” and was “quite conceivable”, said Reich, who heads up the Committee of the National Covid Crisis Coordination (Gecko) with Major General Rudolf Striedinger.
The regulations were tightened in mid-December with the arrival of the new variant and the quarantine period was cut again on December 19th. Since then, people who have been in contact with a person infected with Omicron only need to self-isolate for ten days again (down from 14 days under the tighter rules) and can take a PCR test to end the quarantine early after five days if they test negative. 
They are considered Category 1 (K1) contacts.
This is not the case with the previous Covid-19 variants – contacts of these are considered Category 2 (K2) and do not have to self-isolate. They are just asked to reduce their social contacts and be extra alert to symptoms.
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EXPLAINED: Will Austria ban horse-drawn carriages?
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TOURISM
EXPLAINED: Will Austria ban horse-drawn carriages?
Vienna's Fiaker - the horse-drawn carriages seen across the city's streets for centuries - are popular with tourists, but animal rights advocates say the practice is cruel, particularly as temperatures rise.
Published: 17 May 2022 12:29 CEST
The image of two horses carrying a carriage full of tourists mesmerised by beautiful Austrian sights is quite a common one, particularly in Vienna.
The Fiaker, which is the Austrian name (borrowed from French) for the set of two horses, plus a carriage and coachman, are quite popular and represent an important part of Viennese history.
The first license for a Fiaker was granted in the capital around 1700. They rose in popularity before the advent of cars in the 1900s.
“They are just as much a part of Vienna as St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Giant Ferris Wheel: the fiakers”, according to the Vienna Tourist Board.
READ ALSO: One day in Vienna: How to spend 24 hours in the Austrian capital
Now, though, the symbol for the capital has become the target of controversy. For years, animal rights groups have protested against the overworking of the animals, the stressful conditions for the horses on busy Viennese roads and the extreme heat they face in summer. 
What are the main issues raised?
For years now, several animal rights groups have protested against exploiting the animals for touristic purposes.
By Vienna regulations, the horses need to be out of the streets once temperatures reach 35C. Many groups ask for the limit to be at least 30C instead.
Additionally, the temperature base is measured at the stables, in the mostly shaded areas from where the animals leave every morning to work in Vienna’s first district, where the blazing sun and scorching pavements could make temperatures higher by several degrees.
READ ALSO: Why Vienna is a haven for wild animals – and where you can find them
Another issue raised by groups is that the fiaker no longer fits in a busy 21st-century capital – with its busy roads and loud cars. They claim that walking among the many vehicles and tourists of the first district is unnecessarily stressful for the horses.
A traditional Fiaker in the Viennese first district. (photo: Amanda Previdelli / The Local)
What do the fiaker associations say?
Many representatives of the organisations reiterate that the animals are well-cared for and used to the heat.
A spokeswoman for the carriage companies asks for a round table with politicians as debates heat up, ORF reported. The veterinarian Isabella Copar, who works for two Fiaker farms, says there is no basis for the 30C regulation.
“I don’t understand that politicians make a judgment on animal welfare, even though they have no idea about the animals”, she told the broadcaster.
READ ALSO: How to explore the Austrian mountains in the summer like a local
Copar mentions a 2008 study by the Veterinary school of the University of Vienna saying that after nearly 400 measurements on the animals, not a single case of “heat stress” was found.
As for the infamous cases when horses have collapsed in the streets of Vienna during particularly hot days, she states that the collapses are usually due to a horse disease.
It was never possible to establish a connection with the heat. “If this happens in the stable, no one is interested,” the veterinarian said.
What is next?
The latest news in the controversy is a major one. The Health Minister, who is also Animal Protection Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens), has stated he would “welcome” a debate about a Fiaker ban.
“You should think about it, really for animal welfare reasons, whether you should expose a horse to this stress.
According to the minister, there is a question also as to whether the use of the carriages fits in the context of a large city at all. “I think that’s a bit outdated”, he said.
READ ALSO: Austria bans ‘senseless’ killing of chicks with new animal welfare rules
There is a particular tug of war between the City and the Federal Government regarding whose responsibility it is to act on a possible ban or even tighten the rules.
Both authorities are set to talk about the issue in June. They are set to also speak with the Fiaker associations.
Vienna is unlikely to see a total ban as early as that. Still, a 30C temperature limit after which the horses would need to be sent back to stables could be heading to the capital.
Amanda Previdelli
news@thelocal.at
@aprevidelliEN
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