BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's success in dealing with the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in March and April had led many people to doubt the virus's severity or even its existence, the head of Germany's public health agency said on Thursday.
Describing the result as a so-called "prevention paradox", Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases (RKI), said this meant many were now failing to take social distancing and quarantine seriously enough, leading to the high level of cases Germany is now seeing.
"Other countries, like Belgium or France, have managed to get numbers down, and the reason is people's behaviour, how well they comply," Wieler told a news conference.
"I am sure that as more cases occur, as people see it among their acquaintances, and more people see how it is a serious illness that they don't want to catch, one with long-term consequences, then I think compliance will improve."
While daily infection numbers are no longer rising as sharply as previously, case numbers have stagnated at a high level, and Germany reported its highest single-day death toll since the start of the pandemic on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increased by 22,046 to 1,106,789, RKI data showed, while the reported death toll rose by 479 to 17,602.
Wieler said that the number of infections in older age groups had increased significantly in the past three weeks and that old people's and care homes urgently needed resources to implement hygiene and protective measures for the most vulnerable.
Overall the situation remains "very tense," and health authorities are reaching their limits, he added, urging people to stick to the social distancing and hygiene measures.
Chancellor Angel Merkel and state leaders agreed on Wednesday to extend restrictive measures, which include keeping restaurants and hotels shut and limiting private gatherings to five people from two households, until Jan. 10.
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt and Caroline Copley; Editing by Hugh Lawson)