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EXPLAINED: How and when can I receive a Covid-19 test in Germany?

EXPLAINED: How and when can I receive a Covid-19 test in Germany?
People queue for coronavirus testing at a test centre in Munich on October 30th. Photo: DPA
Think you may have been infected with Covid-19? Here's what you need to know about when and how to receive a test for the coronavirus.

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Who can get tested?

Since the end of August, just over one million people in Germany have been tested for the coronavirus every week. 

So when testing, a targeted approach is important. Because to test all people with cold symptoms, you would need three million tests – every week!

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This is neither possible, nor necessary, due to the laboratory capacity.

In addition, physicians differentiate between a PCR test and an antigen test. (How these differ is explained below).

A coronavirus testing centre in Wuppertal, North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: DPA

Essentially, only people who have been exposed to a risk of infection must be tested. Germany’s Federal Ministry of Health specifically recommends tests for:

  • People with flu-like symptoms, even mild ones. These include dry cough, shortness of breath and fever. A typical secondary symptom is the loss of the sense of smell and taste. This is especially true for people from the “risk group”, i.e. people with pre-existing illnesses and the elderly OR for those who are in close contact with them, for example nursing staff. These people are usually given a PCR test.
  • In case of contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus, whether you show symptoms or not. The case could arise in your own household, through a shared flat, or when the Corona-Warning-App sounds the alarm. 
  • In case of outbreaks in shared accommodation, student residences, asylum-seekers' homes, schools, day-care centres, prisons, nursing homes, hospitals, doctors' offices, etc. This also applies for guests at events in closed spaces such as big weddings or parties. As soon as a person infected with SARS-CoV-2 is detected, guests, patients, residents and staff are tested, here also with the PCR test. If necessary in retirement or nursing homes, an antigen test, which tends to be faster, is given.
  • Travel returnees from a risk area from abroad. They must immediately go into quarantine and inform the local health authority. The quarantine lasts 10 days in total, and they can take a test on the fifth day at the earliest.  Possible tests are a PCR-test or an antigen-test.

READ ALSO: Can I travel within Germany in November?

How do I receive a test?

According to the Federal Ministry of Health, the decision on a test is the responsibility of a person’s doctor or the local Gesundheitsamt (health authority).  

If they consider the test necessary, the statutory health insurance companies also pay for the service.

The medical on-call service for Germany is: 116 117

How does the PCR test work?

The viruses multiply in the mucous membranes in the nasal or pharyngeal cavity. Therefore, a special swab is used to smear the back wall of the throat. This is usually done through the nose and is usually a little unpleasant.

The samples taken are examined in the laboratory by means of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The PCR is not new to the pandemic, as it's also used in paternity testing and genetic fingerprinting for crime.

The procedure is based on a duplication of the viral genetic material. The test itself takes about five hours, and results are available after one to two days.

How does the antigen test work?

The test is based on the detection of SARS Cov-2 proteins. A smear is also taken in the nasopharynx for this purpose.

There's a decisive difference between this method and the PCR test: the smear does not have to be evaluated in a laboratory – this is done directly on site within a short time. This is why the antigen test is also called “rapid test”. All rapid antigen tests currently on the market must be performed by trained medical personnel.

What happens if I have Covid-19?

If the result is positive, the patient and the health authorities need to be informed. Then domestic quarantine is called for – at least until a negative test is available. If an individual's health condition becomes critical, they will then be admitted to an intensive care station.

Contacts will then be identified through contact tracers. In order to contain the spread of the virus as far as possible, they must also be tested and quarantined.

In case of violation of the mentioned obligations to report, test, provide evidence or to perform a self-quarantine, the responsible authorities can impose fines.

A PCR test. Photo: DPA

What if I receive a negative test?

The PCR test for Sars-CoV-2 is very accurate, but still no guarantee. If you have symptoms, you should be quarantined for five days – even if the test result comes back as negative. That is because the test can be negative even if someone is already infected. The reason is the long incubation period of the coronavirus.

Regardless of if they take a test or not, Germany recommends that everyone abide by the same AHA + L rules: These stand for Abstand (Distance) – HygieneAlltagsmaske (face masks) – and lüften (or airing out rooms regularly).

Germany also recommends that everyone install the Corona-Warn-App, which lets users know if someone around them has tested positive for the virus.

READ ALSO: Lüften: Why Germans are obsessed with the art of airing out rooms


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