MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Let's travel back to January, where in Germany, specifically a car parts company in Bavaria - and a worker turned to her colleague and asked, pass the salt. Well, German authorities say that moment was when the country's first human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 took place. And they say early testing is a major reason why Germany's infection and death rates have been so low. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from Berlin to explain.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So I am utterly and completely intrigued. How on Earth did they trace this to a single saltshaker?
SCHMITZ: (Laughter) Well, I've interviewed two doctors who were involved in this investigation. And the company whose employees these were reached out to them, and they said that they suspected a few of their workers had the coronavirus, so their medical team went straight to work. They forensically traced the virus to a Chinese employee who had caught the virus in China and brought it to the company's headquarters. They discovered that the first person who caught it from the Chinese employee had had very limited interaction with her. In fact, the only interaction they had had was when one of them asked the other to pass the salt. And authorities are relatively certain that's how COVID-19 has started in Germany.
KELLY: Well, it's amazing detective work. But take me from that, that early piece of the puzzle - how did that then inform how Germany has handled the crisis?
SCHMITZ: Well, first off, it helped immensely that Germany's health care system overall seems almost set up for a crisis like this. It's well-funded. It has lots of hospitals and research facilities. In fact, in the months leading up to this pandemic, German politicians often debated whether their health care system was bloated, whether it had too many beds. You know, obviously, that debate is over.
SCHMITZ: I spoke to Clemens Wendtner. He's the doctor who treated the first COVID patients in Bavaria. And he says Germany's government was also prepared early on.
CLEMENS WENDTNER: More than 10,000 respirators were just given by the German government. They were asking us, what do you need? We didn't have to ask them.
KELLY: Sounds like a different conversation than has been unfolding here in the U.S. But it sounds like Germany has also been very proactive afterward right from the top.
SCHMITZ: They have. And I think it's Germany's decentralized nature of its health care system that has really helped it. Each one of Germany's 16 states runs its own health care system. It's been a quicker, more local response because frontline health care workers did not need a centralized authority like, say, the CDC in the U.S., to approve everything it did to respond to this pandemic.
KELLY: What has the central government's role been, though? What has Chancellor Angela Merkel's role been?
SCHMITZ: Well, Merkel, as you know, is a trained scientist. She's been surrounding herself with scientists since this pandemic started. And her communication with the public has been that of a scientist explaining complicated things in a way that everyone can understand, and that message has been received very well here in Germany.
KELLY: How is she explaining when things get back to normal? What is the debate in Germany about when to lift the lockdown?
SCHMITZ: Well, she used a pretty complicated compound noun in German yesterday in a video teleconference - (speaking German). (Laughter) I murdered that - the pronunciation of that.
SCHMITZ: But it's a very long word. And it basically translates, roughly, to debate orgies about the easing of lockdown restrictions. And, you know, it expresses...
KELLY: Wow, a debate orgy - OK. Yep.
SCHMITZ: Yeah. It expresses her frustrations with the German politicians from the federal states in Germany who are pushing her to reopen the economy. She's getting a little frustrated by this. And this word is now, of course, trending on Twitter here in Germany, and it really reflects her cautious approach to coming out of this lockdown too quickly.
KELLY: (Speaking German), something like that?
SCHMITZ: You said it way better than I did.
KELLY: I'm not sure. French is my language not German. But just quickly before we let you go - one more thing that I saw today - they have canceled Oktoberfest. This is because of COVID-19. And they're already looking all the way into the fall.
SCHMITZ: It has come to this. Oktoberfest is canceled. Germany is taking this quite seriously.
KELLY: Next Oktoberfest - I guess we'll have to wait for it.
KELLY: NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting there from Berlin.
Thank you, Rob.
SCHMITZ: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.