My experience with nationwide COVID-19 testing in Slovakia

“Your lunch break is over!” a cantankerous man yells as he knocks on the window above his head.

A masked woman, visibly stressed, pops her head out of the window, explaining in between sighs that she has five more minutes of her break left.

He grunts with understanding but lingers around for a few more seconds before returning to his place in line, which snakes around the student dormitory in Bratislava’s Horský Park.

Slovaks typically do not celebrate Halloween, but since 2020 is the year of throwing normalcy to the wolves, a majority of the nation has found themselves spending a rainy October 31 trick or treating…for a negative COVID-19 test result.

Most of us have been waiting in line for over three hours now, but the lady at the window, one of 40,000 people who have signed up to assist with Slovakia’s ambitious nationwide COVID-19 testing plan, has been jotting down people’s details non-stop since 7:00 a.m. She deserves a break and what’s another five minutes of waiting, anyways? As my very limited knowledge of Slovak prevents me from saying this out loud, I settle for a shake of the head.

Photo: Michal Sventek

Talk about a strange Halloween.

The Inception of “Joint Responsibility”

When Slovak PM Igor Matovič first announced his ambitious plan to test the entire nation for COVID-19 on a single weekend, one could almost hear the laughter resounding throughout the country.

Most were convinced that Matovič, who loves a good-old-fashioned Facebook rant as much as Trump loves a hashtag-able lament, was sharing his unfiltered thoughts with an exhausted public, only to completely change his stance the following day.

We would expect nothing less from a PM who threatened to implement a nationwide “blackout” back in April as COVID-19 numbers continued to soar in Slovakia’s neighboring countries.  After the public queried how cutting off the nation’s electricity would help keep COVID-19 cases down, Matovič clarified he in fact meant a lockdown, something that is still not off the table.

But the heavily criticized PM came through with his promise to do something unprecedented, something that “the world is watching” in response to the alarming rise in cases Slovakia has seen in this past month.

After planning in secret for weeks, he implemented the pilot phase of what he deemed his “Joint Responsibility” operation in four of the hardest-hit districts, mostly those up north, on October 23-25.

140,945 people participated in the pilot, of whom 5,594 (or 3.97 percent) tested positive. Although several sites opened late on the first day due to the lack of available healthcare staff, the pilot phase was deemed largely successful and proof that it could work on a much larger scale.

However, the majority of the public, along with the Defense Ministry and even Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, remained skeptical.

After meeting with the head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces as well as the commander of the Joint Responsibility operation on Friday, President Zuzana Čaputová said it would be impossible to carry out the nationwide testing as planned. At that point, less than 24 hours before the testing was scheduled to begin, she learned there was only enough healthcare staff to fill about 60 percent of the testing teams.

As a result, she asked PM Matovič to reconsider the strict curfew in place for those who didn’t end up getting tested as not everyone would get a chance. 

Matovič refused to do so and said he was disappointed by the president’s statements.

The Big Test

By some small miracle, 98 percent of the testing sites in Slovakia were fully functional by 10 a.m on October 31, thanks in large part to the 50 military medics from Austria and 200 medical workers from Hungary who lent a much-needed hand. 

Most people, including my boyfriend and I, started cueing at our closest testing site in the morning. The wait was admittedly long, especially as there was an-hour-and-a-half lunch break right before we made it to the counter (ugh, so close).

But everyone who wanted to get tested was able to and the president applauded the government and all those involved for alleviating her concerns and successfully carrying out such a large-scale project. 

A total of 3,625,332 people in this country of 5.45 million were tested on October 31 and November 1. Of this share, 38,359 (1.06 percent) were positive.

Photo: Michal Sventek

Participation in nationwide testing was voluntary but those who opted out of testing have to stay in isolation. They can still go grocery shopping, but that’s about it. Children under 10 and seniors over 65, along with those with a variety of health complications, were exempt from the testing.

The collective anxiety many felt going into the weekend was amplified for foreigners such as myself as we often struggle to communicate with Slovak authorities.

However, with my limited Slovak, I was able to get tested without any problems. The medical student who swabbed my nose and the soldier who handed me my result 15 minutes later were both kind and efficient. They have thankless jobs even under normal circumstances, and I admire them greatly for their professionalism and the reassurance they provide during such an uncertain time.

Surprisingly, Bratislava and Kosice were actually among the cities with the smallest share of positive cases. As a result, we are exempt from the second round of testing scheduled for November 7-8.

Something negative, something blue

All those who tested negative now have a memento to remember the experience by that they have on their person at all times: a blue certificate confirming their negative result.

While the manufacturer of these certificates had a little too much fun with clip art (the trio of green germs floating in the bottom-left corner doesn’t exactly scream “official”) these blue pieces of paper are high in value. I can now get a professional haircut or enjoy a coffee at restaurants with outdoor seating. 

However, as delicious as these freedoms sound, I am hesitant to indulge. 

For obvious economic and logistical reasons, the nationwide testing was carried out with quicker yet less reliable antigen tests, which means there is a significantly higher rate of false negatives and false positives to factor in. 

Mathematician Richard Kollár estimates that around 25,000 people had false negatives, a figure made more alarming by the fact that these unidentified people have a certificate that allows them to enter shared, public spaces.

So, while I’m relieved I tested negative and this mammoth operation is behind us, I will remain cautious and stay close to home.

I will also allow myself to indulge in some optimism, knowing that despite this collective exhaustion we are all feeling, Slovakia is still immune to apathy. When times are tough, the people that call this little-engine-that-could nation home show up and fulfill their individual responsibilities for the greater good because I think even the most cantankerous among us understand that in 2020 especially, we cannot discount the sheer power of collective resilience.

I hope the rest of the world, if it is indeed taking note of Slovakia’s example, will come to fully realize this too.

Take care of one another,

Anna

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