BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s health minister said Wednesday that the country was “at the beginning of an epidemic” as authorities in the west tested dozens of people who had contact with a couple infected with the coronavirus gaining a foothold in Europe.

Germany has been bracing for an increase in confirmed cases since the number of infected people spiked Friday in nearby Italy. The testing in western Germany came after a 47-year-old man with the virus was hospitalized in serious condition in Duesseldorf.

The man’s wife, who works in a kindergarten, was also confirmed to have contracted the virus. A soldier in the German air force who had contact with the hospitalized man also has tested positive, Col. Rainer Volb, acting head of the German military hospital in Koblenz.

The cases brought Germany’s total to 21. The government said late Wednesday in a statement it would establish an emergency task force regarding the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are at the beginning of a coronavirus epidemic in Germany,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters.

Officials in North Rhine-Westphalia state said earlier Wednesday that the 47-year-old infected man was from Gangelt, near the Dutch border, and that he had been in contact with countless people in recent days, including during Carnival parties and while visiting a Cologne hospital for an unrelated health checkup.


The head of Cologne’s health department, Johannes Niessen, said the man had come into contact with 41 people, including several doctors and nurses, at least one of whom was showing symptoms of illness.

Stephan Pusch, who heads the district administration in Heinsberg, where the case occurred, said Wednesday that schools and kindergartens in the area would remain shut until Monday. He urged people who display symptoms of illness to stay at home and contact their doctors by phone.

In a sign of growing fears over the economic impact of the outbreak that has so far centered mainly on Asia, German airline Lufthansa said it was suspending recruitment of new staff, offering existing employees unpaid leave and expanding options for part-time work.


Full AP coverage of the virus outbreak can be found here: