VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria, one of the more successful countries in Europe at flattening the curve of coronavirus infections, plans to test every retirement home resident as it expands efforts to measure the pandemic’s spread, its health minister said on Thursday.
The Alpine republic acted early in its outbreak to shut schools, bars, restaurants, non-essential shops and other gathering places roughly four weeks ago. It has told the public to stay at home and work from there if possible.
So far it has reported just 410 deaths in total, fewer than some larger countries are suffering each day. Health Minister Rudolf Anschober told a news conference the daily increase in cases was now 0.9%, which he said was the lowest rate in Europe.
“The very strong focus in the coming weeks will be the testing of all staff and all residents of retirement and care homes. We are talking, ladies and gentlemen, about 130,000 people,” Anschober said.
That will take some time. Anschober has said the daily testing capacity in the country of 8.8 million people is more than 10,000 but less than the 15,000 that conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has set as a target.
The health ministry said there is no date by which the country’s 918 retirement and care homes must be tested.
“The international experience has been that this area is the area where the risk is greatest,” Anschober, who is from the left-wing Greens party, said. The elderly and those with underlying health problems are most at risk of dying of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Austria started loosening its lockdown on Tuesday, letting DIY stores, garden centres and smaller shops reopen. Larger shops and hairdressers are due to follow from May 1.
It has said it will be on the lookout for any acceleration in infections and will delay its step-by-step loosening of its lockdown if necessary. It also has some lingering hotspots of infection under quarantine, including the ski resorts of Ischgl, St Anton am Arlberg and Soelden.
Retirement homes have been a major source of coronavirus-related deaths in hard-hit countries like Italy, Spain and France, but there is no mention of the facilities in Austria’s data. It reports deaths where the patient previously tested positive for the virus, regardless of whether it caused death.
Austria does, however, give a breakdown of COVID-19 deaths by age. Almost all of them were over 65.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy, Editing by William Maclean)