Austria to roll out free home coronavirus testing from March

The Austrian government says it wants everyone to have access to free self tests for use at home from 1 March in a bid to combat the new variants of the coronavirus.

Austria to roll out free home coronavirus testing from March
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) and Vienna's mayor Michael Ludwig hold their novel coronavirus antigen rapid tests ALEX HALADA / AFP

Together with PCR and antigen tests to allow people to access services such as hairdressers and increased testing at schools and businesses, the government expects to reach a target of up to 3.5 million tests per week.

Since recent PCR or antigen tests became necessary to book a hair appointment, testing has reached unprecedented levels in Austria. In the week ending Sunday, Die Presse reports 1,522,739 antigen and PCR tests were carried out in Austria.

In addition antigen ‘anterior nasal tests’ were used for the first time in schools across Austria last week. It is estimated a maximum of around 2.2 million tests will be carried out in schools per week

Pharmacists carry out coronavirus tests in Austria ALEX HALADA

Health Minister Rudolf Anschober wants to further facilitate access to free tests.

There are now 490 test centres (Teststraße) available throughout Austria.

The network is supplemented by pharmacies and, starting from today, tests in companies

As of Sunday, 787 pharmacies and 730 companies were taking part in the free test campaign.

‘Test most in Europe’

Chancellor Kurz told Der Standard Austria was among the countries “which test the most in Europe”, and said Austria was the first country in Europe to test in schools.

He said free home tests would make it easy for people to play it safe at home too. 

Anschober also gave a vaccination update earlier, announcing by the end of the week 150,000 people would have received total immunisation from the coronavirus (both doses).

A total of 400,000 vaccinations have already been carried out in Austria.

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Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.