BOLZANO – Citizens in Italy’s small Germany-speaking province of South Tyrol lined up Friday at schools, gymnasiums and pharmacies for rapid coronavirus tests, the largest testing initiative in the country to date and one that officials hope will speed the lifting of a partial locally imposed lockdown.
The Alpine province bordering Austria is following the example of Slovakia, which moved to slow infections and avoid a second lockdown by testing nearly two-thirds of its 5.5 million people in one weekend this month.
In South Tyrol, officials and family doctors are urging citizens in the province with a population of more than half a million to participate in the voluntary screening by showing up at nearly 200 testing sites. The goal is to test 350,000 people, or 80% of the population over age 5, by Sunday.
By comparison, Italy carries out some 200,000-250,000 molecular tests with nasal swabs a day.
“The comprehensive screening is a very big and perhaps the only, chance to get the risk of infection under control again,’’ the province’s top health official, Thomas Widmann, said this week.
Mass testing is seen as a way to isolate asymptomatic carriers of the new coronavirus, who are major spreaders in the resurgence that has seen confirmed cases spike throughout Europe beyond the numbers reported during the pandemic's first deadly peak in the spring.
The rapid antigen tests South Tyrol is using for its current drive are considered by many key to boosting testing capacity because they don’t require labs to generate results like the more reliable but costly and time-consuming nasal swabs. But experts warn that the 15-minute tests can produce false negatives and that using them effectively for screening requires frequent retesting.
India used the rapid tests to increase testing for the virus nearly five-fold this summer. In Britain, the city of Liverpool in northwest England has tested more than 130,000 of the half-million residents since early November, a project the U.K. government hopes to replicate, if it's successful. Since early November all of England has been under a lockdown, with restaurants, pubs and non-essential shops closed but schools open.
South Tyrol hospitals are at a breaking point, with more than 93% of beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients, down from a recent peak of 99%. Still, that's far higher than the Italian national average of just over 50%. As of Friday, 468 patients in the province were hospitalized with the virus, plus 38 in intensive care, with another nearly 10,200 in home quarantine.
Within the first two hours of the rapid tests, 24,000 or some 4.4 % of the province had participated in mass screening, with nearly 600 testing positive, or 2.5%.
“This is important, the virus needs to be blocked in some way,'' said Barbara De Prezzo, who was getting tested with her adult son in Bolzano. ”Everyone I know is for it. I am a babysitter and go to a family that has small children. They will be more serene, and so will I be, knowing I am not bringing home the virus."
The province, which enjoys considerable autonomy from Rome especially on issues like health care, declared itself a red zone on Nov. 8, several days after the Italian government imposed partial lockdowns on four regions. The Italian Health Ministry on Friday extended partial lockdowns in the four regions, which include epicenter Lombardy, until Dec. 3.
Hopes for a true return to normalcy remain pinned globally on the success of recent vaccine tests. Italy plans to begin distributing the Pfizer vaccine to 1.6 million Italians most at risk of exposure and the elderly starting in January. The government expects to reach most of the population that wants to be vaccinated by the end of September, assuming that regulatory approvals go through as expected, the national commissioner for the COVID-19 emergency, Domenico Arcuri, said Thursday.
“This will be the biggest campaign to administer a vaccine that we can remember, not just in Italy but in all of Europe and many parts of the world,’’ Arcuri told a news conference.
Hungary, meanwhile, has received doses of a Russian coronavirus vaccine, making it the first country in Europe to receive samples of Sputnik 5, the drug hailed by Russian President Vladimir Putin as the world’s first registered COVID-19 vaccine. The drug has not undergone advanced clinical trials and has not yet been assessed by the European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s drug regulator. Clinical trials of the samples will begin in Hungary next month.
Colleen Barry reported from Milan.