Covid-19 testing : Are Berlin's airport testing sites overwhelmed?
Returning vacationers comprise half of new coronavirus infections in Berlin. An attack on staff at Tegel raises questions about whether testing centres are adequately prepared.
BerlinHomebound travellers make up 50 per cent of all new corona infections in Berlin, the department of health told Berliner Zeitung on Monday. Most positive test results at Berlin’s airports are showing up in people who have travelled back from Turkey and Kosovo, officials added.
The numbers for the Berlin-Brandenburg region are higher than elsewhere in Germany. According to the state disease control centre, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), returning travellers make up just a third of new infections in Germany as a whole.
Since test centres were opened at both Tegel and Schönefeld Airport on 29 July, 13,175 people had been tested through 12 August. More up-to-date statistics have yet to be released.
Of those, 208 people tested positive – a rate of 1.58 per cent. The rate of positive tests was lower at the central bus station in Charlottenburg, where only three people of 2,266 tested positive for the coronavirus, an infection rate of 0.13 per cent. A new testing centre was opened at the Hauptbahnhof on Monday.
But what about travellers who just walk out of the airport without getting tested? According to Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH, which operates Berlin's airports, a total of 4,000 passengers return from “risk regions” every day. Speaking to Berliner Zeitung, spokesperson Sabine Deckwerth said that meant about 56,000 were required to get tested over a two-week period.
But it’s difficult to estimate how many have deliberately avoided getting tested, as tests have only been mandatory for travellers who visited high-risk regions since 8 August. They must get tested within 72 hours of arriving, either at the airport or at a doctor’s office - and remain in quarantine until they test negative.
Since the weekend, two more questions have arisen: How safe are staff at the testing sites? And are their current opening hours adequate considering flights from high-risk regions land before they're open and after they close?
Airport testing worker attacked
The issue of security arose following a violent attack against a testing centre employee in Tegel Sunday. According to police, the man had wanted to get his child tested. His family had flown back to Berlin several days earlier – so they no longer qualified for a test at the airport and were subsequently turned down.
The man shoved the employee against a grating. She was injured and had to be treated by emergency services on site. According to a police spokesperson, she has pressed charges for bodily harm against the assailant.
Police have yet to determine the man’s identity, as he left the airport before police could arrive. Following the incident, the testing facility shut down for the rest of Sunday.
Will the city administration and the Charité and Vivantes clinics – whose staff often volunteer to staff the test sites – make any changes? The incident is being investigated, the department of science told this newspaper on Monday.
"Further protective measures for test site personnel are under discussion," an official said. About 20 people have been working at each of the facilities in Tegel and Schönefeld.
The Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, have been providing administrative support.
The Berlin Christian Democrats (CDU) say too little is being done and insist that test sites be staffed for as long as flights arrive at the airports.
“Those who don’t get tested at the airport potentially slip through the cracks,” Tim Zeelen, the CDU’s health expert in the Berlin parliament, told Berliner Zeitung. He pointed out that the flight schedule is public knowledge, so there was no reason not to have testing staff at hand. There was obviously no security concept in place and personnel felt left alone, Zeelen said, calling the situation “a disgrace.”
More and more high-risk countries
The Robert Koch Institute now classifies more than 80 countries as risky, including Egypt, Turkey, USA, Belgium, Luxembourg, Cuba, Kenya, Congo, Israel, parts of Spain, Romania and Bulgaria. Besides the number of new infections - the threshold of 50 per 100,000 inhabitants cannot be exceeded – factors that lead to a country’s classification as high-risk include its testing capacity, the number of tests performed per inhabitant and other anti-corona measures taken.
The rules for returning passengers are strict, fines loom large – but travellers in the queue at the Tegel Airport test site on Monday saw little sense in them.
"We lived in isolation in a village in South Africa for nine months," explains a 43-year-old South African turbine engineer. He and his German girlfriend wear matching face masks. Normally, they divide their time between the two countries. They spent the lockdown in South Africa – secluded, far away from sources of infection. Now work is forcing them back to Berlin.
"Most of our contact with people in the last two days was on the flight," the engineer said. "If we got infected it was there - but a test today won't show that."
His girlfriend would have preferred to postpone the flight altogether because of the test. She rejects the notion of being legally obliged to do so: "I want to decide for myself what I do with my body," she says. She says she would have preferred being quarantined.
Still, on Monday things were going smoothly at the Tegel testing facility. A 20-year-old woman wearing a red face mask who just spent 11 months in Australia says: "That was quick, not even five minutes! The quick test is better than quarantining yourself for two weeks."