May 19, 2024
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‘Gargling for Austria’

In time for yeshiva break, I, with my husband and three children, traveled to Vienna, Austria, to visit my husband’s 86-year-old (Holocaust survivor) mother and for my husband to receive medical treatment that he has not been able to access in America. My husband’s sister was also in Vienna taking care of my mother-in-law, as she had recently had a pacemaker inserted and was recovering from several weeks of hospitalization. Our children were anxious to see their Omi after three long years and looked forward to visiting their beloved aunt as well.

My mother-in-law’s doctor recommended that to keep Omi safe, in addition to masking with KN95 or N95 masks (the only masks accepted on planes and in public places), known in Austria as “FFP2,” we would rent a car rather than take public transport, limit our visits to outdoor parks, zoos and very sparsely visited museums (which all require proof of vaccination and boosters to enter anyway), and avail ourselves of the daily COVID testing to which everyone in Austria—all residents and visitors—have access.

It should be said that we knew in advance that in order to travel by plane to Austria, we had to be vaccinated and boosted. For anyone unvaccinated, there is a quarantine requirement and a 10 p.m. curfew. While we were in Vienna, Austria’s parliament voted to become the first country in Europe to mandate vaccination and booster shots for adults. Every child under 12 is tested in school twice a week, and with negative results receives a “Ninja Pass” that he or she can present at zoos, restaurants and museums to gain entry. Unvaccinated adults generally do not gain legal entry to public places other than grocery stores and pharmacies. While there was some reported opposition to the vaccine mandate, there is widespread adherence to these policies, as far as I understand it. Having spent time in Austria before, I generally believe Austrians to be rule-followers; for example, they wait at traffic lights even when no cars are coming. I also witnessed widespread adherence to COVID protocols while I was there.

Because I was accompanying my husband to doctors’ appointments as well, we both had to always have a negative COVID test no more than 48 hours old. This is apparently the case for hair salons, any other personal care services, and most offices and businesses in Austria as well.

To generate negative COVID tests, we used a computer-aided, home-administered COVID PCR test, which is then sent to a lab. This is part of the testing campaign called “Alles Gurgelt!,” which means “Let’s All Gargle!” It is paid for by the city of Vienna and since March 2021, this service has been used by practically every resident and possibly every visitor.

When we arrived, my sister-in-law presented us with cute blue-and-teal boxes made by an Austrian company, LEAD Horizon, called “Corona-test.” These boxes can be picked up at any of 160 BIPA stores in Vienna (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVCwgJCArtA). BIPA is sort of like Walgreens or CVS, except it does not provide pharmacy services, which is in the sole purview of the many independent Apoteke (pharmacies). Each registered person can use their personalized QR code at BIPA to pick up eight tests per week. We had already pre-registered for this service back in New Jersey, so we had attached our email addresses to our names and phone numbers and provided passport identification as well. That’s when the fun really began.

After scanning my first test’s bar code, I unscrewed a small plastic tube of salinated water, clicked “activate” on my computer camera, and swished the water around in my mouth on screen. After 65 seconds, I was invited to use a paper straw (provided) to spit the water into a test tube, and then to screen-capture a photo of myself and the test tube’s bar code. I then packaged up my sample, sealed the bag, placed it back in the cute box, and got ready to help my family do their tests.

After all five family tests were completed (of course with several of my family members spitting some of the water on my hand as a matter of course, every day), we were ready to deliver our tests to be processed.

Almost every BIPA, pharmacy and grocery store in Vienna houses a repository for “Alles Gurgelt!” tests. Upon placing the test in a bin before 9 a.m. or 2 p.m., one is guaranteed the PCR results within 24 hours. We often got our results via email within 12 hours. Luckily, after doing 56 tests (we didn’t test most weekends and didn’t test the children precisely every day as they didn’t need a 48-hour PCR test), between all of us during our time in Vienna, we never tested positive. But I will say that my kids generally did not enjoy getting up early every day, in order to, in my words, “Gargle for Austria.”

Another vaguely amusing thing about Austria which makes certain things difficult is that it is completely closed on Sundays. No grocery stores, no pharmacies, no convenience stores, basically only tourist spots, restaurants (with very limited hours) and gas stations. So since we needed to have fresh tests every Monday morning, I had to find gas stations to drop off our tests. We also were traveling home on a Monday morning, so in addition to using “Alles Gurgelt!” we did nose-swab antigen tests at another LEAD Horizon-administered location in central Vienna, also free to us and paid for by the city.

Despite clearly vigorous testing by the residents of Vienna, we arrived during a rise in cases. As mentioned, Austrians are not the kind of people to flaunt rules, yet the omicron variant ruled them during January, as it ruled New York and New Jersey in December, and cases doubled every day we were in Austria until the week we left. It seemed that even with the entire population having access to reliable tests and with every person wearing a KN95 or N95 mask in indoor settings, COVID continued to evade even Vienna’s most organized strictures.

By Elizabeth Kratz

 

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