No more PCR tests for all: How Austria’s test strategy could change

The newer variants of the virus require adjustments to the way Austria carries out testing, the nation's crisis commission has said.

PCR test
In some regions, PCR tests are set to be limited to key areas like the healthcare and care sectors and schools. Photo: Thomas Kienzle/AFP

At the moment, PCR tests are widely available to residents and tourists in Austria for free, regardless of whether you have symptoms and why you need the test — though availability does vary between the different regions. PCR tests are more accurate than antigen tests, but the samples must be sent to a lab for analysis which is not the case for the rapid antigen tests.

Vienna has the widest offer, where residents can collect free at-home PCR tests from pharmacies and supermarkets through the Alles Gurgelt (Everyone Gargles) programme. More PCR tests are carried out in Vienna, home to around a fifth of Austria’s total population, than in all the other states combined.

Major General Thomas Starlinger, one of the members of the national Covid crisis group GECKO, on Thursday evening said that the nature of the Omicron variant necessitated a change in testing strategy.

EXPLAINED: What are the Covid-19 rules in Austria now?

Speaking on TV news programme ZiB Nacht,  he said: “In the coming weeks, in the regions which are reaching their limits with PCR testing, they will be forced to set priorities in areas like hospitals, schools and critical infrastructure.”

This means that in future, PCR tests will not be offered to everyone, Starlinger said.

The newer variant is highly transmissable, which has resulted in record case numbers and high pressure on testing services.

In some of the regions, testing is approaching full capacity, and this means regions will need to establish a priority order for testing. Starlinger explained this would mean ensuring PCR tests were available for the healthcare and care sectors as well as schools.

For people outside those key areas, the first alternative would be to take an antigen test, which should be valid for up to 12 hours only.

Starlinger said he would not call the changes a “strategy change”, but rather a “reaction” to the changing dynamic of the virus. 

ANALYSIS: What will happen with the pandemic in Austria in 2022?

Gecko will meet again on Friday and any new recommendations will be passed on to the government.

As the map from Our World in Data below shows, Austria carries out more Covid tests per capita than almost any other country in Europe.

Several medical experts have been advocating for a change in test strategy.

Vienna’s City Councilor for Health Peter Hacker has said he wants to stick to the widespread testing strategy in Vienna, while simulation expert Niki Popper from the TU University used Vienna as a model example in an interview with the Kleine Zeitung, saying that “test strategy is more crucial than ever”.

But virologist Günter Weiss has criticised Austria’s “excessive and untargeted testing” in media interviews, arguing that the tests are expensive and can have negative effects such as giving people a false sense of security. He said that, for example, for someone who has received three vaccine doses and is wearing a mask at an event, it would be “It would be better to make sure that people wear the masks correctly, observe hand hygiene and distance rules” than to show a negative PCR test result.

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What tourists in Austria should do if they test positive for Covid

As the summer holidays begin here's all you need to know about Covid-19 in Austria, how to get a free test and what to do if it comes back positive.

What tourists in Austria should do if they test positive for Covid

Summer holidays are about to start, and many people are going to take vacations and travel around Europe. So if you are heading to Austria, here’s what you need to know to enjoy the nice weather without (so many) concerns.

Covid rules in Austria

First things first: are you following the country’s entry rules? Austria has significantly eased its restrictions and now you don’t need to show any proof that you were vaccinated, recovered or tested negative to Covid-19. There is also no need to fill out any forms.

Additionally, it has removed most of its local restrictions, including contact restrictions and mandatory mask mandate. You only need to wear an FFP2 mask in Vienna’s public transport, and if you are going to a hospital or another health or care facility. 

READ ALSO: LATEST: These are the Covid rules in Austria and Vienna from June 2022

What is the current Covid-19 situation in Austria?

The number of new infections is on the rise in Austria, but authorities are not bringing back any restriction at the moment. The Austrian government says that numbers were expected to rise as new variants are more infectious, but cause a less severe course of the disease.

On Monday, June 27th, Austria reported 6,398 new coronavirus infections after 65,830 PCR tests. There were 777 people hospitalised with Covid-19 and 48 in intensive care units. 

READ ALSO: Is Austria heading for a summer Covid wave and could face masks return?

What do I do if I suspect I have Covid-19?

Even if you just suspect it you should get tested. There are several ways to get tested for free in Austria, but if you have symptoms, you should call the Austrian health line on number 1450.

A nurse will be able to assess your symptoms and either classify you as a suspected case or give you further information on how to reach a general practitioner – or even go to a hospital if necessary.

If you are a suspected case, you could be referred to a specific test facility, or someone will be sent to the place where you are staying for a PCR test.

You can check a list of Vienna testing centres here.

READ ALSO: Covid-19: What to do if you test positive in Austria

How can I get tested for free?

Since April 1st, Austria has changed its testing policy, and free Covid-19 tests are no longer unlimited in the country.

People will be entitled to five PCR and five antigen tests a month, though testing as a suspected case does not fall into that limit.

One of the easiest ways to get a free Covid PCR test, especially for people who don’t speak German, is using the Alles Gurgelt offers. For this, you need to sign up to the website.

When you click “jetzt registrieren“, you are taken to the partner company website. There are several languages to pick from, including English, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Portuguese, and Romanian.

When asked for a social security number, you can just enter the digit 0000 together with your date of birth, as instructed by the website.

Tourists can also use test streets and “test boxes”, as you only need to bring a registration confirmation and an official ID and wear an FFP2 mask. The registration is made online, and you can check a box stating that you don’t have an Austrian social security number (Sozialversicherungsnummer).

READ ALSO: Vienna: How tourists, visitors (and residents) can get free Covid tests

What if my test comes back positive?

If you have tested positive for Covid-19, you are required to stay in isolation, which can be done in a hotel room, rented property, or in the house of the people you are staying with. In the latter case, your friends and family staying in the same place as you won’t have to go into quarantine.

If they are fully vaccinated, they are not considered contact persons. However, they should still get tested.

While in isolation, you are not allowed to leave the place you are staying for any other reason than health and safety emergencies.

You need to stay at home quarantined for 10 days. The quarantine can be ended automatically after five days if a PCR test comes back negative or with a CT value above 30 if you don’t have any symptoms for at least 48h.

Can I return home if I test positive?

Public health officers can decide whether individuals are allowed to travel home. Usually, this is allowed when travelling by private car. Train or plane journeys are not permitted with suspected or confirmed cases.

Useful vocabulary

Absonderungsbescheid: A segregation notice obliges a person to isolate himself from other people as much as possible. This is often referred to as quarantine.
Kontaktpersonen: Contact persons are persons who have been in contact (shake hands, conversation,…) with a person who tested positive.
Ansteckung: Infection.
Verdachtsfall: Suspected case.
Testergebnis: Test result.