Swiss virus death toll hits 235 as official says worst case scenario `not yet materialised'

By Kirsti Knolle
FILE PHOTO: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Winterthur

By Kirsti Knolle

ZURICH (Reuters) - The death toll in Switzerland from coronavirus had climbed to 235 while total cases stand at 13,213, the health ministry said on Saturday, though officials said their worst fears have so far not materialised.

The fatalities were up from 197 on Friday, with the number of confirmed infections increasing from 12,161.

The Alpine country of 8.6 million people is deploying army medical units at hospitals to help in regions like Ticino, which borders hard-hit Italy, and has began tapping its strategic stockpile of pharmaceuticals to cover rising demand. The public has been urged to remain home, while gatherings of more than five people have been banned.

Even so, officials said that there is additional capacity in intensive care beds and that while resources including strong painkillers are being stretched, the country's medical system is holding up.

"The worst-case forecasts that were made weeks ago have not materialized," said Daniel Koch, head of the health ministry's communicable disease division.

Speaking at a news conference in Bern, he said currently 280 people are in intensive care. The country has more than 1,000 ventilators, including those deployed by the Swiss military at make-shift medical facilities set up to handle a possible deluge of patients.

"That’s 280 people who are fighting for their lives," Koch said. Still, "no ICU is overwhelmed. All still have capacity. We can ventilate more people, but we’re hoping that the population remains disciplined. That’s the only way to avoid a situation in which a lot more patients need to be ventilated."


MONEY PUMP

Like other European countries, Switzerland is pumping money into its crisis-hit economy, and state-backed loans worth 20 billion Swiss francs ($21 billion) were made available on Thursday.

By Saturday, about 15,930 companies had completed loan applications, the government said, as the jobless figure rose by 13,500 and 757,000 applications for shorter working hours were submitted, representing some 15% of the country's total workforce.

Finance Minister Ueli Maurer said the government was happy to help with loans, but that the money must be paid back and could not cover income losses.

"We are not distributing federal money, but taxpayers' money," Maurer told SRF radio. "Many of those who pay taxes are now partially unemployed, their jobs are in question, and now we take the money away from them and distribute it somewhere where there are also problems."




(Reporting by John Revill, John Miller and Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Mark Potter and Mike Harrison)