Slovakia tests a million people each week yet fails to contain coronavirus spread

The government insists on antigen testing, ignoring instructions for use, with lags in more accurate PCR testing and tracing of contacts.

TrnavaTrnava (Source: TASR)

No other European country has given up on the “gold standard” of Covid suppression – an efficient test-and-trace strategy.

This involves testing with the more reliable PCR tests, the isolation of infected cases, and quarantining their close contacts within 24 hours.

In Slovakia, health care professionals take swabs from one million people, but using the less reliable rapid antigen tests. Meanwhile, the number of performed PCR tests has dropped to less than 70,000 a week. In October, laboratories were still processing 110,000 on a weekly basis.

The state’s testing strategy using antigen tests, combined with self-tracing, meaning that those who test positive must notify the people they have been in close contact with, is not working. The number of Covid patients in hospitals did not drop under 3,600 last week, and more than 5,000 new infections are reported every day.

“We are not taking advantage of the strengths of either of the two types of tests, and it results in chaos,” said former head of the Institute of Health Policy think tank running under the Health Ministry, Martin Smatana.

Producers of antigen tests recommend their use only in places with significant infection outbreaks. This is because antigen tests tend to wrongly deem people with a smaller coronavirus load as negative. They do not recommend antigen tests to be used on a mass scale. Yet Slovakia has been using them as the main diagnostic tool.

Countries that have performed better in Covid-19 suppression perform a large number of PCR tests. Austria, Hungary, Poland and Czechia also disproportionately carry out more PCR tests than Slovakia.

“The success of other countries in containing the pandemic is to a large extent linked to PCR testing,” claims mathematician Richard Kollár.

PCR tests are used in Slovakia mainly for people with Covid symptoms, and some of those who test positive in antigen testing who want to take a more reliable test to verify the result, Kollár estimated.

Under the rules of the Covid automat applying in Slovakia since February 8, the government motivates people to take antigen tests. There are many testing sites around the country and the testing is free of charge. In contrast, the state only covers two PCR tests a month per person, and only if prescribed by a medical doctor or a public health official.

As if they forgot to read instructions

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