From concerts to Covid at Vienna mass testing venue
In happier times, Vienna’s Stadthalle was one of the city’s main concert and event venues but on Friday morning, it attracted crowds waiting for a quick coronavirus test.
n happier times, Vienna’s Stadthalle was one of the city’s main concert and event venues but on Friday morning, it attracted crowds waiting for a quick coronavirus test.
The venue is one of three in the Austrian capital where the government’s mass coronavirus testing programme, inspired by a similar one in neighbouring Slovakia, is getting underway in earnest.
Teething problems may be inevitable, but two thousand army recruits mobilised to staff the centres in Vienna alone were ready to step in.
Looking out from the stands above the Stadthalle’s vast floor space, Brigadier Stefan Lampl, proudly indicated the 40 “testing lanes” set up for soldiers to administer the tests.
While the army has long planned for a pandemic, “it’s the first time we’ve dealt with not just a planning exercise — it’s working in practice,” the site commander said.
Ten million tests have been ordered — for a population of 8.8 million — and the government hopes the testing programme will help the country safely emerge from its second coronavirus lockdown on Monday.
At regular intervals soldiers trooped between the testing lanes, some in fatigues, others in full protective gear, to change shifts and relieve their colleagues.
Those undergoing the quick antigen test received their results within 15 minutes.
f anyone tests positive, they have to go to a separate part of the site to have a PCR test before going home to quarantine and wait for the result.
Matthias, 35, had just had his negative result back and found the whole process had “very smooth”.
The much-feared nose swab “scratches a little… but isn’t so unbearable,” he said.
– ‘Too much propaganda’ –
By 10 am dozens were queueing outside the Stadthalle but Lampl estimated that for the first day the centre would handle 10,000 out of a capacity of 20,000 daily tests.
“For me, the fact that there aren’t as many today isn’t that bad because it’s a chance for my soldiers to get used to the whole process and the IT system,” Lampl said.
The IT system commissioned by the central government duly ran into problems on Friday, leading centres in Vienna and several other regions to stop using it.
Lampl explained that like all good soldiers, his men came prepared with a back up: analogue recording.
A data breach this week from the online platform for people to register for a test led to hundreds of people’s details being leaked.
Vienna’s city councillor responsible for health, Peter Hacker, criticised the way the central government announced the mass tests and its anti-virus strategy.
“Lately there has been too much in the way of propaganda. Every week measures get introduced which haven’t been discussed beforehand,” Hacker said.
Despite the problems, some of those queueing up outside Stadthalle on Friday hoped they would be the first of many.
“I know (the tests) only give a snapshot but that’s better than nothing,” said 57-year-old musician Werner, adding: “A lot of money has been devoted to this and I don’t understand why some people don’t want to go.”
Price has been another source of criticism, with opposition parties claiming the government has unnecessarily spent millions more than the cost of the comparable programme in Slovakia.
Austria’s second lockdown seems to have had at least some of the desired effect on infection numbers, with the new cases at 3,815 on Friday, down from 4,954 last Friday.
But for Health Minister Rudolf Anschober even that number is “far too high” with the aim being to bring it “in the direction of 1,000 over the next two weeks”.