Austria bets on millions of tests to contain Covid-19

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VIENNA, Feb 23, 2021 (BSS/AFP) – While Austria has struggled to contain the
second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, it is fast emerging as a world
leader in testing as a way to reopen schools and businesses.

The small nation with a population of just under nine million tested three
million people last week alone, with the mass-testing strategy forming a key
plank for getting pupils back into the classroom.

Half of those three million tests were administered in schools, where
twice-weekly tests have been mandatory since in-person lessons restarted
earlier this month.

Only a tiny percentage of parents have refused to have their children
tested under the scheme — and those children are not allowed to return to
school.

The other 1.5 million tests were carried out at more than 500 dedicated
centres, around 900 pharmacies and roughly 1,000 companies.

“Our strategy is to have a high frequency of tests and to make them very
easily accessible — it’s the only way to keep the pandemic in check,”
Katharina Reich, the health ministry’s chief medical officer, told AFP.

A negative test result, no older than 48 hours, is now required at a range
of locations — from hair salons to elderly care homes, or ski resorts.

The seven-day average of daily tests is 24 per 1,000 in Austria, compared
to 7.7 in Britain and just 1.77 in neighbouring Germany, according to the Our
World In Data website.

“But we want that to be higher — much higher,” Reich said, explaining
that the goal is “for 60 to 70 percent of the population to get tested at
least twice a week, or even three times a week if they want to see risk
groups, like the elderly.”

She says tests are a key weapon in the fight against the pandemic until
the vaccine rollout has been completed.

From March 1, every person will be allocated up to five “living-room”
antigen tests, so called because they only require a shallow swab of the
nasal cavity and so can be done at home.

– ‘Return to normality’ –

Yveta Unzeitig, who has already been tested several times because the
publishing house she works at participates in the testing drive, said she
thought expanding tests was a good idea.

“It sounds smart, but they should do it for everything — with a negative
test, I’d also like to be able to go to a restaurant, or for a coffee with
friends,” she said, referring to the still closed hospitality industry.

“It sounds like it’d make all of us safer, and like we’d then able to
return to normality,” said her daughter Yvonne, who works at an insurance
company.

Professor Monika Redlberger-Fritz, head of department at Medical
University Vienna’s centre for virology, says that turning up as many cases
as possible through testing is “very, very important”.

However, she cautions that a negative antigen result from a nose or throat
swab only shows that the person is not highly contagious — not that he or
she is not contagious at all.

“Just because you take the test, that doesn’t mean that you can go
straight to your grandma and hug her and kiss her,” she said.

FFP2 masks and an interpersonal distance of two metres (six feet) continue
to be mandatory in places like stores and public buildings.

Like elsewhere, Austria is also contending with the spread of virus
mutations, including the more infectious South African variant.

– Pandemic fatigue –

How successful the millions of tests have been will be evaluated over the
coming weeks, especially by looking at changes in intensive care unit
capacities, said Redlberger-Fritz. Increasing testing is partly a response to
growing resistance to lockdowns — hundreds now protest against the
government’s pandemic measures every weekend — and a widespread “pandemic
fatigue”.

The first mass testing drives began late last year, but the initiative
seemed to falter as relatively few people turned up to the designated
centres: “Mass tests without masses,” ran the headlines.

However, making tests mandatory for some sectors and investing more in
public awareness campaigns seems to have had the desired effect.

At one pharmacy in Vienna, 21-year-old Sascha said he, like many Austrians
in recent weeks, had got a test “to be able to get a haircut”.

But he said he finds the requirement “arduous” and says he will only get
tested — or vaccinated — if he absolutely has to.