Snowboarders in powder, beer glasses in the evening sun, people entangled in the après-ski chalet. Shown in the right light, the Tyrolean ski resort of Ischgl is a real paradise for winter sports. Hundreds of pictures on Instagram show how fun in the snow carried on at the beginning of March - despite first warnings about Corona. Today we know: Ischgl was probably one of the first Corona hotspots in Europe. An evaluation by journalists of BR Recherche/BR Data shows how the virus might have spread from there.
Reporters have analysed more than 4,000 Instagram posts that were posted in Ischgl between the end of February and the beginning of March; the timespan when the first holiday-makers were probably infected and after which several Corona cases were confirmed. Since many Instagram users link their images to their location data, it can be shown that more than 1,000 users published pictures of other places in Europe after their stay in Ischgl. So, tourists who might have contracted the virus in Ischgl could have spread it all over Europe, for example to Great Britain, Iceland, Poland or the Czech Republic. An especially large number of Instagram users in Ischgl then went to the Netherlands and Belgium, to Switzerland, Scandinavia - and, in particular, to Germany.
This is where the tourists travelled after they'd been to Ischgl.
More than 1,000 pictures on Instagram show: Many people went to other European countries after their stay in Ischgl. An indication as to how the virus might have spread.
First warnings from Iceland
On March 5th Iceland declared the popular ski resort of Ischgl an area of risk. The country had already red-flagged the Ischgl cluster with the help of the European early warning system. There was no official warning as a consequence - neither in Tyrol, nor in Germany, where most oft the tourists in Ischgl come from.
On Saturday, March 7th, 17 friends from Germany are on their way to Austria. They go skiing together every year. This year, for the first time, it is to be Ischgl. "Of course, we briefly talked about Corona", one of them says, "but there weren't any indications and no travel warning either." So they put disinfectant in their luggage, but apart from that - same as always.
"Kitzloch is taboo, guys"
On the first two nights some of the group go to après-ski parties. On Monday, someone writes in their group chat: "Kitzloch is taboo, guys!!" - accompanied by a smiley with a face mask. On the previous day, it came to light that an employee of the popular après-ski bar had tested positive for the Corona virus. At the same time, the press release of the Tyrolean Health Department (Landessanitätsdirektion) contained the reassuring phrase: "A transmission of the Corona virus to guests of the bar is rather unlikely from a medical point of view." The following Monday is already revealing how wrong this assessment has been: 15 further people from the barkeeper's environment have been infected.
While the Kitzloch is shut, all other bars and chalets are open as usual. One day later, in the late afternoon of March 10th, all après-ski restaurants have to close. On March 11th, there is a sign at the cable car saying: "Due to a pre-emptive move for the protection of your health (prevention COVID-19) we ask you to man the cabin with a maximum of 14 people." Not more than 100 people are allowed in the hill top restaurant and half of it is blocked off. On Thursday, it is officially announced: The skiing season will end on March 13th. The first members of the group are leaving - so is Lucas. "After the first positive cases had been confirmed, it was a question of mathematics. There were about as many cases as there were in Berlin at that time - but the likelihood of meeting someone with Corona in Ischgl is somewhat higher than in Berlin", he tells the BR.
11 out of 17 tested positive
The result of the collective skiing trip appears a few days later: 15 group members have fallen ill. Some of them only have a cough, but others have a temperature or even an acute fever. 11 of them finally test positive for the Corona virus. The group spread all over Germany: Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, Leipzig, Stuttgart. All of them go into quarantine after returning from Ischgl, as shortly after leaving the valley of Paznaun, the Robert Koch Institute declares Tyrol to be an area of risk. Late returners' luck. In many other cases, however, returners from Ischgl go to work or to parties before they develop symptoms and test positive for the virus. How many of these cases could have been avoided if Tyrol had acted more quickly?
On request of the BR, the state of Tyrol emphasises that it carried out tests for Corona shortly after the warnings from Iceland and that it "declared the end of the tourist winter season a few days later." It claims to be the first federal state in Austria to have implemented such widespread measures.
Many early cases in Germany from Ischgl
The BR has evaluated a large number of German press reports and has come across 341 cases from 101 German administrative districts and urban municipalities, in which travelers were allegedly infected in Ischgl. These cases are spread across the whole country.
Many of them were the first in their hometown to have tested positive for the virus. In addition, numerous tourists went to Ischgl after March 5th - so after Iceland had declared Tyrol an area of risk, without further consequence in Europe. Just like the group of friends from Germany. Now, after two weeks of quarantine at home, all of them are fine again. However, in hindsight, Lucas says he maybe shouldn't have gone there at all.
BR-Research: Ischgl returners from 101 districts infected
According to research from BR, returners from Ischgl have tested positive in these 101 German administrative districts and urban municipalities.
Almost no official figures
The individual cases collected from the media only show a small cross-section. Presumably, there is a high number of unreported cases. In Germany, it's the health offices that register if cases actually result directly from Ischgl. The so-called place of exposure is, however, no longer sent to the responsible health ministries and the Robert Koch Institute. In reply to the BR's request for information, several states claim that this would be too complex and moreover, the infection chains have become very hard to track.
However, there are a few figures. The Regional Commission of Stuttgart writes on Friday: "Taken altogether, 101 SARS-CoV-2 cases with Ischgl as the place of exposure have been reported to the Baden-Württemberg Health Office." At the same time North Rhine-Westphalia reports 973 cases which can be tracked down to Tyrol, which is almost 10 percent of infections in the entire state. Thuringia says: "The number of cases in Thuringia is 349 (as at 24th March, 10:00 am). 120 of these cases can be tracked down to Austria as the country of exposure."
A campaign by the Austrian Consumer Protection Association leads to the assumption of how high the number of unreported cases might be. The consumer protectors have pressed criminal charges against the governor of Tyrol, Günther Platter, against mayors, cable car carriers and further government officials. Within only five days, more than 2,500 infected people reported their cases. Most of them come from Germany and were most likely infected in the Ischgl region.
Meanwhile, the Innsbruck public prosecutor is investigating a case of a Corona infection in Ischgl. A caterer is said to not have reported the positive test of an employee to the authorities. The investigation began on the request of the German TV channel ZDF. Whether an obligation to report has been violated or not is not clear, says the public prosecutor. According to them, it might take some time until they have results.
Translation: Klaus Schneider