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Testing at German airports

July 28, 2020

COVID-19 cases are rising as many Germans are going abroad for vacation. Health Minister Jens Spahn wants mandatory testing for when they come back. Voluntary testing is already underway, such as at Cologne-Bonn Airport.

Viktor and Margharita at the test center at Cologne Bonn airport
Image: DW/L. Hänel

The airport's test center is on the back of a white truck provided by Johanniter, a relief organization. The return travelers still had their luggage with them. Children were sprawled out on the nearby grass, soaking up the sun.

Read moreCOVID-19 tracing apps prove to be a tricky business

It's summer vacation for Germany. Schools in North Rhine-Westphalia, the western German state where Cologne-Bonn Airport is located, have been out for weeks. Some people are already starting to return from their travels, raising concerns that they've caught COVID-19 while away, especially if returning from new hotspots, such as the Austrian resort town, St. Wolfgang.

The discussion of what to do with returning travelers, is a reminder of how the outbreak spread across Europe in the first place. In early spring it was another Austrian travel destination, the ski resort town of Ischgl, that many initial cases could be traced back to.

German officials want to prevent a repeat. Health Minister Jens Spahn said he wants to implement free, mandatory testing for those returning from risk areas.

Voluntary testing has already been agreed upon, with test centers set up at airports in several German cities.

Johanniter truck with test center
Testing at Cologne airport is done in a mobile unitImage: DW/L. Hänel

Taking people at their word

Nils Kirner works for Johanniter's test center at the Cologne-Bonn Airport. He is very noticeable in his bright red Johanniter jacket, so people regularly come up to him with questions, regardless if they had already flown somewhere. An older man said he was running a fever and wanted to get tested, although he hadn't been anywhere. 

"You can, but then you have to pay it yourself," Kirner said, reminding him to adjust his mask, which had slipped under his nose as he got in line to be tested.

Tests cost 90 euros ($105), but since the weekend they have been made free to anyone returning from a risk area.

"There have been considerably more people coming to get tested now that they're free," Kirner said. How many depends on the number of arriving flights. "Six flights landed in only one night last weekend. So we had to find people to handle that."

Read more: Germany braces for a second coronavirus wave

Volunteers also pitch in when staffing is stretched thin. They don't ask for a boarding pass to prove they've flown or where they've come from. "So far, we've taken people at their word," Kirner said.

Nils Kirner
Nils Kirner heads the mobile testing unit at Cologne airportImage: DW/L. Hänel

Germany's public health authority, the Robert Koch Institute, counts about 130 countries as coronavirus risk areas. That includes Turkey, Israel, and the US. Within Europe, Luxembourg, North Macedonia, and Ukraine belong to that group.

Travelers from non-risk zones also have to pay themselves. Ute Menke did so, following a five-day trip to northern Italy with her son.

"Grandma is in the hospital right now. We got ourselves tested so my son can visit her again," she said.

Airport testing to slow the spread

Testing at Cologne-Bonn Airport starts in a tent in front of the mobile station. Johanniter staff ask people for their phone numbers, then conduct the tests inside the trailer while wearing protective gear. Some travelers getting tested have arrived not by plane, but by car, having returned from their vacation destinations over land.

Results are available via an app, sometimes within 24 hours. False negatives are possible for those carrying the virus but not yet showing symptoms. Still, airport testing can help slow the spread, Kirner said.

testing center at the airport
Not only travelers come to the mobile airport unit for testsImage: DW/L. Hänel

Mandatory testing for people returning from high-risk areas is likely to come into force next week. The Federal Doctors Association has warned a follow-up test would be necessary five days after the initial one to ensure the accuracy of the first result, the association's chief, Ute Teichert, told German media.

Read more: Does the Oxford coronavirus vaccine promise immunity?

Germany's Patient Protection Foundation welcomes the move, saying relying on travelers' common sense is not enough.

If they don't have proof of a negative test result, those returning from risk areas are already required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Many of those waiting for a test at Cologne-Bonn Airport said they wanted to avoid that. Some said their employer would not allow extra time to quarantine, or only on an unpaid basis.

Viktor, returning from Ukraine, works for the airport as a mechanic, and was asked to get tested upon his return.

"I often fly with medical transports," he said. That's all the more reason he has to prove he is healthy.