Despite underutilised labs in Bonn PCR testing capacities are not being maximised
Bonn · Parents in Bonn are still having to wait days for their children’s PCR test results because the contracted laboratory is overloaded. But at the same time there are laboratories in the local area with sufficient testing capacities.
There is continued anger over long waiting times for PCR test results in Bonn. While supra-regional laboratories in particular are facing difficulties in processing the samples on time, local providers, such as the CBT and the University Hospital in Bonn, still have capacities available. However, it is difficult to switch due to the contracts concluded by the city. Meanwhile, the health department is focusing less and less on contact tracing, which is reflected in the incidence rates.
Contact tracing is behind the high incidence rates
The seven-day incidence rate in Bonn is consistently above the one thousand mark - while significantly fewer COVID infections are reported in Cologne and the Rhein-Sieg district. There are two reasons for this. The incidence rate has risen sharply since the health department reduced contact tracing to vulnerable groups only, such as clinics and nursing homes, and increased the number of staff responsible for entering the positive PCR tests. Before, the health department was simply not able to record the sheer mass of samples in the system and report them to the Robert Koch Institute. But active testing is also an important factor, according to deputy city spokesman Marc Hoffmann. “This makes it difficult for an infection to fall through the cracks.”
The huge mass of tests is increasingly pushing the laboratories to their limits. Time and again, nurseries and schools are having to wait for results that arrive late, leading to closures and childcare problems for parents (as reported by the GA). A primary school teacher in Endenich says that it is “fairly chaotic”. “We have had positive pools every day this week except yesterday. The laboratories have sent us the test results late or not at all”. Private individuals are also affected - depending on where they take their PCR test. It can take up to four days to receive notification.
Supra-regional laboratories are overloaded
The pool tests are organised in different ways in schools and in nurseries. While the schools are handled by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which mainly commissions supra-regional providers with local sites, the nurseries are free to choose. Last year, Bonn agreed to have all 200 nurseries tested at the Wisplinghoff laboratory in Cologne. Here, hundreds of employees evaluate tens of thousands of tests from all over NRW. The city administration department has a contract with the company guaranteeing that results will be available by 6am the next morning. “The city authorities are aware of the capacity problems at the laboratory. We are waiting for developments in the coming days and assume that the problems will be fixed,” says Hoffmann. Wisplinghoff did not respond to a GA enquiry and referred to the NRW Ministry of Education.
In order for the nurseries to continue operating, the city of Bonn informed them on Friday that children may return even if there were positive pool tests on Tuesday and Thursday. On the following Monday, they must instead show a negative rapid test result and be free of symptoms.
The company Synlab, which has a branch in Bonn, is more open about the situation. “Heavy utilisation of the laboratories throughout Germany is evident in our laboratories in the Rhineland too,” says Synlab spokesperson Christian Ries. They are experiencing delays due to the current escalation of the Omicron wave and the increased demand for tests, he explains. Capacities have been expanded and extra staff hired. “Nevertheless, qualified personnel remains the limiting factor.” It cannot be ruled out “that it may take longer than the usual 24 to 48 hours to receive the results.”
Results the next morning
These are utopian time frames for the CBT laboratory at Propsthof in Bonn. “Samples that we receive by the evening are analysed at 5am the next morning,” says laboratory manager Philipp Westhofen. It was not until the pandemic that the laboratory medical practice, which actually specialises in blood coagulation disorders and transplant medicine, adapted to mass PCR testing. This meant laboratory operation around the clock, with no holidays or weekends. “We only have a 50 per cent workload,” says Westhofen. There is currently a large influx of practices and test centres looking for other laboratory partners due to overloading. However, CBT also operates five of its own test containers in Bonn. “If a PCR test takes 72 hours, then it no longer makes sense to do one because we have so many people infected with COVID at the moment.” At CBT, the positive rate is currently around 30 per cent, which is also due to the fact that many people usually come following a positive rapid test.
Even test centres like the one in the Brückenforum, organised by Sandro Heinemann from Bonn, are not yet working to full capacity. “Customers are happy to have a PCR test where it doesn't take forever to get the results,” he says. The Virology Department of the University Hospital Bonn is currently analysing a lot of samples for the Bonn health department, which operates its own testing centre in Bad Godesberg, as well as for the larger hospitals in the region. “Emergencies, for example PCR analyses before urgent operations, are given priority," says Anna-Maria Eis-Hübinger, Head of Patient Care at the Institute of Virology. The majority of samples are evaluated on the same day as they are received.
Positive rate has increased fivefold
Despite the problems, the NRW Ministry of Health assumes that the maximum PCR testing capacity in the state has not yet been reached. It is said to be possible to carry out 930,000 PCR tests every week. “However, this is to be understood as a purely apparent capacity," says ministry spokesperson Carsten Duif. In other words, due to the lengthy and heavy workload, it can be assumed that there are too few staff and thus the real capacities fluctuate and may be lower. At the beginning of January, around 625,500 PCR tests were carried out in NRW. Only these are included in the infection statistics. So anyone who does not take a PCR test following a positive rapid test, even though they are obliged to do so, does not appear in the numbers. The testing centres report the rapid tests to the state; from 10 to 16 January, the total was around three million. Since December, the positive rate for rapid tests has increased almost fivefold. While it was still 0.28 per cent in Bonn and 0.32 per cent in the Rhein-Sieg district at the beginning of December, it is now 1.27 and 0.87 per cent respectively.