How Vienna Plans to Mass Test the Population for COVID-19

The city aims to test 1.2 million residents from Dec. 4-13. Here is how it is supposed to work.

Vienna’s and Austria’s mass testing program has started. You can register at österreich-testet.at

Vienna offers free testing with rapid antigen tests from December 4-13, at testing sites in the Vienna Stadthalle, in the Marxhalle in the 3rd district and in the exhibition hall (Messehalle) near the Prater.

Shortly after the beginning of the lockdown, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) announced that the government plans to mass test the population in December and January. Such mass testing campaigns have recently been tried in neighboring Slovakia – which tested 2/3 of its population in November – and in South Tyrol. The goal is to detect unknown cases and break infection chains with the help of rapid antigen tests that deliver a result within 15-20 minutes with high accuracy (however, not as high as with PCR tests, which need lab equipment to get a result).

The Austrian Health Ministry and the federal states seemed not to be aware of the chancellor’s plans at first, which led to some initial irritations. But now, more details of the mass testing drive are emerging. Vienna’s City Councilor Health Peter Hacker (SPÖ) counts on a “Viennese solution” with which the city government plans to test 1.2 million people between December 4-13.

The processing will take place at three major locations: A total of 300 test lines will be set up according to the walk-in principle in the Vienna Stadthalle, the Marxhalle in Vienna’s 3rd district Landstraße, and the exhibition hall (Messehalle) near the Prater. “This corresponds to 50 times the capacity of the current test line at the stadium,” where there are six test lines, Hacker said.

As many as 500 people per test line can be handled daily. This means that up to 150,000 people per day can be checked for a virus infection with rapid antigen tests at all mass test locations taken together. On December 13, Vienna wants to have completed the mass testing drive so that anyone who has to go into quarantine will still be able to celebrate Christmas. If this were not guaranteed, considerably fewer people would participate in the program, Hacker speculated.

Test Halls Are Already Being Prepared

The three test halls are currently being prepared for mass testing, Hacker said. The plan is that only a few people at a time will be in the area where the swabs for the rapid tests are taken. The main waiting areas will be in the open air, with long queues being kept to a minimum thanks to an online system for appointments that the federal government promised to provide.

Daily opening times are planned to be between 08:00 in the morning and 22:00 in the evening. Hacker made it clear that due to the dimension of the project, in a city of two million people, the implementation could only be realized with “massive” support from the Austrian Armed Forces (the Bundesheer). On Wednesday, he discussed this with Minister of Defense Klaudia Tanner (ÖVP) and shared Vienna’s test concept with her. Hacker explained that Vienna could count on the support of about 200 experts from the Viennese blue-light organizations (Red Cross, ambulances etc.), which could possibly be complemented by a number of medical students.

If the Rapid Antigen Test Is Positive, a PCR Test Will Follow

The test campaign will be conducted in two stages. First, a rapid antigen test will be carried out for each participant. If the test is positive, the result will be corroborated with a subsequent PCR test. Then, if confirmed, health authorities can issue a decree of isolation.

Health Councilor Hacker confirmed that the city has enough rapid antigen tests to starte testing, even if the federal government fails to deliver the test kits in time. The councilor also stressed that the second round with PCR tests is crucial, as with rapid antigen tests, “the number of false positives can be up to five times higher than the number of actual infections” (most experts expect a significantly lower of false positives).

The city will carry out the confirmatory PCR tests entirely on its own, primarily with gargling tests. “This will be done on the spot, with city personnel,” Hacker said. Until the results of this testing phase are available, affected persons will in any case be asked to self-quarantine. Whether Vienna will also carry out contact tracing if the results are positive is still under consideration, said the city council.

Test Sites Open for Ten Hours a Day

Vienna wants to start the tests as soon as possible so a large number of people can take part, Hacker said: “Nobody will get tested if they have to expect to spend the holidays in quarantine.” The three test streets in the Messe Wien, in the Marx-Halle and in the Stadthalle will therefore operate simultaneously to the existing PCR testing streets in the Prater near Ernst Happel Stadium and on the Danube Island near the Floridsdorfer Brücke.

There will be guided entry paths for people to walk in and get tested at their reserved time. In contrast to the PCR testing roads, a direct test from the car will not be possible – but people can of course travel to the testing sites by public transport, car or just walk there if they live close nearby.

There will be no staggered schedule for specific population groups such as teachers or police officers. The launch on December 2 will immediately open the test street for the public. Hacker expects people working at schools, hospitals and in nursing home not to use this option much anyway, since regular screenings have already been, and will continue to be, carried out in these facilities.

No “Halli-Galli” After a Positive Rapid Antigen Tests

The City’s Health Council emphasized once again that a negative test result does not in any way represent an individual carte blanche: “The pandemic has not been eliminated, we have not ‘tested ourselves free’,” Hacker warned: “Even after the mass test, no Halli-Galli (commotion) can be permitted.”

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Benjamin Wolf
Benjamin studied Journalism, History and International Affairs. After stints with Cafébabel in Paris and Arte in Strasbourg, he is now working as managing editor and COO for Metropole in Vienna. Fields of expertise are politics, economics, culture, and history. Photo: Visual Hub

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