In global first, Slovakia begins mass virus testing

Laszlo Juhasz, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 31 2020 10:33 PM

A worker performs a quality check in the packaging facility of Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech, developing an experimental coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, during a government-organized media tour in Beijing, China, September 24, 2020. Thomas Peter, Reuters

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA — Slovakia on Saturday began a program to screen its entire population for coronavirus in what would be a global first but medical professionals have warned it could lead to an increase in cases.

Some 45,000 medical workers, army and police are being deployed to carry out the tests in the EU member state of 5.4 million people, collecting swabs at around 5,000 testing points.

Socially distanced queues could be seen forming in the streets of the capital Bratislava even before the points opened at 0600 GMT.

"The world will be watching," Prime Minister Igor Matovic said this week.

He said the measure would save "hundreds of lives".

The program will use antigen tests, which give quick results -- something within minutes.

But antigen tests are not seen as being as reliable as the PCR test for which nasal and throat swabs have to be sent to a lab for analysis.

Participation in the testing is not mandatory but anyone who is not able to produce a negative test certificate if stopped by police could get a heavy fine.

Anyone who tests positive has to go immediately into quarantine for 10 days.

"This will be our road to freedom," Matovic said, hinting that virus restrictions could be eased once testing is complete, or reinforced if the program is not carried out in full.

Slovakia would be the first country of its size to undergo nationwide testing, although mass testing has taken place in entire Chinese cities.

Smaller European states such as Luxembourg and Monaco have also announced mass testing programs.

Government 'threatening people' 

Like other countries, Slovakia has seen a sharp rise in coronavirus cases although it is below the EU average.

On Friday, it reported a record 3,363 new daily infections, followed by 2,573 on Saturday.

The total now stands at 57,664, with 219 deaths.

The government is hoping to complete the nationwide testing over two days and carry out another round of mass tests next weekend.

But it has struggled to find medical workers to staff all the testing sites and has been forced to offer cash bonuses for doctors.

During pilot testing in four high-risk regions last weekend, people had to queue for up to two hours in some cases.

The Slovak Association of General Practitioners has criticized the government's plan, saying it is ill-prepared.

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The association said that the "mass concentration of millions of people" at testing sites "is at odds with the recommendations of infectious disease experts to reduce public contacts and mobility as much as possible".

Many ordinary people -- like Radovan Babincak, an unemployed man living in the capital Bratislava -- want to stay away.

"The government and the prime minister are threatening people," the 40-year-old told AFP.