Cologne/Bonn At Cologne-Bonn Airport, travellers returning home can be tested for coronavirus. The test is free of charge for travellers from risk countries. On site, the rush is growing and the queues are getting longer. Here are some insights into the work of the improvised test centre.
The sight of the man in white protective clothing is too much for the little girl. A moment ago she was still sitting on a plane from Morocco. Now, Dania is sitting on a chair in the Johanniter's emergency vehicle at Cologne-Bonn Airport, and a fully masked man wants to stick a ten-centimetre test stick into her nose and throat. The three-year-old clings to her mother and buries her face in her shoulder, screaming. The first attempt of a corona test on the child was unsuccessful. More are to follow.
Behind the frightening mask and the protective suit is Tjeerd Hoekstra, who aged 79, still works for Johanniter on a voluntary basis and performs swab tests in the mobile coronavirus test centre at the airport. He has already done about 150 by lunchtime. His shift lasts from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m., but the Dutchman, who lives in Bergisch Gladbach, is still on duty long after he has finished work. But this is better for him than sitting on the sofa at home. "I simply have to do something, and this is meaningful work," he says. Although he spends most of his time in a protective suit and wears a breathing mask at the age of nearly 80, he does his job with undiminished ease. "It's all very simple," he says mischievously. "It's only sometimes difficult with children; they are often afraid of us." He himself is not afraid - not even of being infected.
However, the concern about infection is the driving force behind the decision to test people directly at the airport. The authorities fear that people returning from travel may bring the coronavirus with them and thus cause further outbreaks of infection. Travellers from risk countries must therefore report to their local health authorities and be placed in domestic quarantine for 14 days - unless they can show a negative corona test. Test centres at all German airports are to make this possible nationwide. As of Wednesday afternoon, 3,416 people have been examined by the Johanniter at Cologne-Bonn Airport since they set up their tents there on 18 July. According to the city of Cologne, 17 tests turned out positive and the results of 581 tests are still pending. It is already clear that increasingly more travellers are taking up the offer, which means up to 500 people a day in Cologne. According to a resolution of the federal and state health ministers, these new rules are now in effect: Those traveling from a risk area can take the corona test free of charge and all others have to pay 90 euros for it. Since this regulation came into force five days ago, 2,795 travellers from risk areas have been tested free of charge, according to the City of Cologne.
Empty terminals and long queues at the test centre
Whoever enters an airport these days is confronted with a rare sight. It is unusually empty and quiet in the two terminals at Cologne-Bonn Airport during the holiday season. All the counters are unmanned, and at the baggage check only one employee is texting on his mobile phone in boredom. Two English-speaking men with four wheely suitcases are looking for an employee in front of a travel counter in Terminal 1. In the glass roof above their heads, a single passenger plane stands out against the blue summer sky. Meanwhile, an announcement echoes from the loudspeakers and reminds them of the obligation to wear masks and to keep their distance.
Long queues form in front of the test centre at the long-distance bus station and at about 1 p.m., more than a hundred people are waiting for a test. This scene is mixed with engine noise and occasional honking from the adjacent bus station. Most of the people are returning from high-risk areas, says Nils Kirner, who heads the test centre. He estimates them to make up 90 per cent of the total. The vast majority of them come from Turkey, followed by Morocco. Many homecomers from Spain, which is not considered a risk country, are also choosing to be tested. The samples are sent to the laboratory in Cologne twice a day and the people being tested have to wait 24 to 48 hours until they get the result. This can be called up by a QR code via a mobile phone and is also sent in writing.
Employees are testing around the clock
The Johanniter provide at least three employees for each shift, accompanied by a doctor sent by the Cologne health authority and the test operation is now running around the clock. "In the last few nights, we have deployed two- to three-times as many staff members, because the rush was so great," says Kirner. The 40-year-old is constantly in demand, because the airport, the city and the emergency services want to make arrangements. New barriers and markings have to be installed. With his red emergency jacket, he is a constant magnet for questions from travellers. In addition, he sorts boxes of protective suits, disposable gloves and disinfectants - with a telephone always at his ear. Kirner now works up to ten hours almost daily at the airport. His 20 years of experience in the rescue service should help to keep the coronavirus, which has managed to spread rapidly across the entire globe, out of the private sphere. "We all have plenty of experience here with increased basic hygiene," says Kirner, who wouldn't even sit in his private car wearing his work clothes.
The mobile first-aid station, which was already used at major events such as the Summer Jam and Parookaville music festivals and the Cologne Lights before it was put into use, is also meticulous. After each test, there is a so-called abrasive-wipe-disinfection of the surfaces. Once a week, a deeper cleaning is carried out with a stronger agent. Doctors first instruct nursing staff in how to carry out tests: Inserting the test stick into the nose and throat is a balancing act: too deep and it hurts the tested person, not deep enough and the test is unreliable.
Meanwhile, a loud argument breaks out in front of the ambulance, and for a few minutes, nerves are raw. A middle-aged man is obviously worried that a woman with a child might jump the queue. "I won't let you in", he shouts, "go somewhere else". After a brief exchange of words, the woman leaves. “That is unusual," comments Kirner, "I haven’t experienced that until now." People usually behave in a very disciplined and orderly fashion throughout, and they are better informed than at first, which makes the work of the emergency services easier.
"We had no other option"
Passengers wait 5 to 90 minutes for their turn - depending on the rush. First of all, personal data are requested and contact details are collected in an operation tent, then they undertake the actual test, which only takes a few seconds. "That was a bit unpleasant," says Orhan Demir, who arrived from Turkey after a business trip. The test stick is inserted very deeply. "I travel a lot on business," says the 31-year-old. In Turkey, the test is subject to a fee and the queues are much longer. "I think what is on offer here is really good," he says. Sulejman Pepic, who came from Bosnia with his wife and two children by car, is also pleased with the offer. "We didn't have any other option," says the 49-year-old bus driver. Otherwise, he and his wife, who is a nurse, would not be allowed to go to work.
For three-year-old Dania from Morocco, the fight for a corona test has meanwhile moved to the adjacent meadow. Even coaxing did not help, and the little girl does not want to put the test stick in her mouth either. Tears flow again, until Birgit Daum, an employee, rushes to help and brings a packet of fruit gums. "Necessity is the mother of invention," says the 50-year-old mother of four. As she slips the sweets to the girl, the test stick rushes lightning fast down her throat and back. A brief cry, then the child is busy with the fruit gums again - and another corona test is ready for collection.
(Original text, From Andreas Dyck; translation John Chandler)