Covid testing disaster at Berlin airports

Overworked laboratories are just the latest hurdle in an otherwise failing strategy of detecting corona in travellers. 

Just say you came from Bielefeld.
Just say you came from Bielefeld.dpa/Britta Petersen

Berlin-Closed testing sites as planes land from high-risk countries. Long waits for test results. And no enforcement on who needs to be tested or who was tested. Track landing cards completed by passengers? Why?

To top it all, now there's a debate on who should pay for the tests as laboratories threaten to stop testing. And then there’s the row within the city administration about who should be doing the testing.

The list of mishaps and inconsistencies in the testing of travellers who arrive from high-risk countries is growing longer every day and is causing more and more trouble in Berlin politics. A solution is nowhere in sight.

About 4,000 people from high-risk regions land at Tegel and Schönefeld every day. These days, ‘high-risk’ means almost all countries outside the EU as well as vacation hot spot Spain and Belgium, home to Brussels, the EU capital.

Anyone arriving from these countries must be tested within 72 hours, either at the airport or a doctor’s office. So the popularity of airport testing sites comes as no surprise. Like the other leaders of Germany’s 16 states, Berlin Mayor Michael Müller (SPD) is considering charging the arriving passengers for the tests.

While the politicians put on their thinking caps, medical laboratories are totally overworked. Starting Wednesday, the labs told city administrators, they will no longer process tests performed at airports.

Mayor Müller, who also moonlights as the city’s top science bureaucrat, said the Charité hospital, which his under his purview, will also no longer oversee the test sites – it's instead up to the head of the city’s health department, Dilek Kalayci (SPD).

The wrangling only affects airport arrivals since testing at the Hauptbahnhof and main bus station is performed by the German Red Cross with backing from the Bundeswehr, the German army.

The association of public insurance physicians, or KV, is now supposed to take over the testing but they will likely only do so under protest, if at all.

This is blind actionism

Wolfgang Albers

The association has been critical of German Health Minister Jens Spahn’s (CDU) edict making tests mandatory for arrivals from high-risk areas. The association criticised “a lack of integration of outpatient care.”

The association, which represents general physicians, complained that the test requirement could lead to an explosion in both tests in neighborhood doctors’ offices as well as a need for corona care.

The new requirement also shot holes in a hard-fought guideline for voluntary testing in Berlin.

“This is blind actionism,” says Wolfgang Albers (Die Linke), head of Berlin’s parliamentary health committee and a practising doctor. “And nobody can now cope with the consequences.”

Apparently, Berlin’s politicians don’t even understand the testing strategy any more.

Albers fears that people are unnecessarily being whipped into a frenzy by the pandemic. The tests are just aimed at a populace that is “supposedly calmed down” by them.  Mass testing of people without symptoms, he says, isn’t an “instrument for containing the pandemic". Targeted tests would be.

Jan Kramer, an executive with the the Association of Accredited Laboratories in Medicine (ALM), is equally critical of testing people without symptoms.

“We already see cases where passengers test negative on arrival, but then seek tests because of symptoms a few days later. Such tests only lull people into a false sense of security,” Kramer, an internist and laboratory medicine specialist, says.

SPD health politician Thomas Isenberg blames it on general “dysfunctional management”. The quarrel in the Berlin government is just making it worse. Health officials should be the top authority and everyone subjegated to them – the Charité taking on some responsibility for the test sites wasn’t helpful.

And the efforts with landing cards for passengers didn’t go far enough – federal police should have been randomly testing passengers and passing the data on to health authorities, Isenberg says.

Isenberg is also critical of the idea of mass testing. If resources are scarce, quarantine must once again play a bigger role: Anyone returning from a high-risk area must quarantine themselves for 14 days. Hamburg Mayor Peter Tenscher (SPD) recently made a similar statement.

The Berlin health expert within the business-friendly FDP, Florian Kluckert, also finds blindly testing at aiports “completely crazy”.

“One could set up counters where passengers would be asked whether they had been in corona-critical situations at their location,” Kluckert told Berliner Zeitung. If so, the passengers would have to be tested.

The interviews could be conducted by medical students or Bundeswehr forces, he said.