The German military is making preparations to help tackle the coronavirus crisis should other civil servants become overwhelmed with the outbreak, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said on Thursday.
"We are preparing for a worst-case scenario where a very large number of people will become infected and we have the human resources to help," she said.
The number of confirmed cases in Germany leapt by almost a third on Thursday to reach 11,000, with 20 known deaths to date, according to the Robert Koch Institute for Disease Control.
The jump is partly attributable to large numbers of holidaymakers returning from winter ski outings in northern Italy, Switzerland and Austria, many of whom were tested immediately on their return, authorities in Hamburg said.
But the big increase has stoked fears that Germany risks ending up with thousands of people needing hospitalisation, with its healthcare system as overwhelmed as that of Italy.
It is a scenario Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is eager to avoid. It has restricted social contact by shutting down schools, daycare centres and non-essential businesses until after Easter.
Kramp-Karrenbauer said the military had already contacted hundreds of medical reservists and would be able to protect critical infrastructure and distribute medical equipment, medicines and masks should this become necessary.
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It could also assist with setting up makeshift hospitals with intensive-care beds and open its own medical centres, where 60-70% of patients currently are civilian, to members of the public needing medical attention after contracting the virus.
Deploying the army within Germany would be particularly sensitive for many Germans still haunted by the country's militarist past under Nazi rule.
Any such step is strictly reserved to extreme circumstances under Germany's post-war democratic constitution and Kramp-Karrenbauer said it would be coordinated with the country's 16 states, which run their own health and security.
With one of the world's oldest populations, Germany is rushing to have in place sufficient intensive-care beds should its curbs on movement fail to slow the spread of the virus, which causes respiratory problems especially in the elderly.
Around 22% of the 83 million people in Germany are over 60 and Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed in a rare televised address to the nation that the measures curtailing personal freedoms were necessary to protect the weakest, namely the elderly.
Kramp-Karrenbauer said the goal was to double bed capacity to almost one million and raise the number of intensive-care beds from 28,000 to 50,000.
She dismissed fears of shortages of essential medical equipment like masks and ventilators, saying that German companies had increased production and it was possible to import from China, where production was rising again.
"German citizens can rely on the army," said Kramp-Karrenbauer.
(Writing by Joseph Nasr Editing by Mark Heinrich)