Note featuring heart (Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

On a positive note

Nicola von Lutterotti (Sciana Cohort 4) shares the story of a GP who set up a mobile Corona test station to offer free virus tests to the most vulnerable

When it comes to fighting the present pandemic, most governments reacted somewhat like an immune system in panic mode. Instead of acting swiftly, they hesitated too long and then took drastic measures that damage our society just as the cytokine storm, the immunologic "gunfire," injures the organs when our defence system cannot stop the virus at the entrance.

However, there are also examples of good leadership. One of them is Lisa Federle: a general practitioner and president of the Red Cross in Tübingen, a middle-size university town in southern Germany. "In March last year, when the coronavirus hit northern Italy killing hundreds of elderly people, I realized that something had to be done to protect this vulnerable population," Dr. Federle told me in an interview. "Therefore, I transformed a van into a mobile Corona Test Station and visited all nursery and retirement homes in the area offering free virus-tests to everyone living and working there. The first retirement home already had 16 cases. All of them were still asymptomatic, but later on, some of them sadly died," she said.

By the time Dr. Federle had started her testing tour, she had ordered PCR tests worth 100,000 Euro. "At the time, it wasn't clear who would pay for the tests. In case no one would have felt responsible, I would have been prepared to claim the money from social welfare," Dr. Federle said. Fortunately, this wasn't necessary since the government agreed to pay for the regular PCR tests in retirement and the nursery homes.

In autumn 2020, when the rapid tests became available, Dr. Federle realized the enormous potential of being able to know in a few minutes whether someone is infected or not. The day following their release on the market, she ordered 25,000 of them and delivered them to about 50 retirement and nursery homes in her area. "The people living there were totally isolated. This situation was unbearable. Some of my patients suffered immensely because they hadn't been able to visit their loved ones for weeks," she said. "The rapid tests provided them with the means to test visitors. They were extremely grateful for this."

When Christmas approached, Dr. Federle convinced the local politicians of the necessity to have free tests for all citizens. "Many families wanted to celebrate Christmas with their elderly parents or grandparents. However, most of them were scared to do so. They didn't want to put their elderly family members at risk."

To be able to test asymptomatic people, she couldn't count on health insurance. Always ready to find solutions, she called every major in the area, asking for help. "All of them agreed to support me. In about three hours, I had all the money I needed," she said. With the mayor's consent, she then installed a test booth in the centre of Tübingen where everybody could get a free test. Her idea obviously touched a sensitive nerve in the population. "On some days, we were completely overrun. There were up to 1,000 people standing in line waiting to be tested," she said.

Not everyone agreed, though, that her strategy – the "Tübinger way" – was the right way to go. Some people argued that the rapid tests could miss positive cases and therefore weren't very reliable. Dr. Federle would reply to these objections that a sensitivity of 90 or 95 percent is much better than not testing at all and thus complete uncertainty.

To many around her, Dr. Federle was a role model. You might also say that her conviction and commitment were contagious since, besides collecting the funds, she also managed to find enough helping hands to assist her. Among the most important ones were the members of a music band. "Due to Corona they couldn't go on tour and hence decided to support me and my team of the Red Cross. They do all the paperwork when people come and get tested."

After the Christmas season, the test team's workload in the centre of Tübingen has dropped significantly. However, they still have about 100 visitors a day. Now, they are completely dependent on donations. "We keep a donation box right next to the stand," Dr. Federle said. "Everyone can give as much as he or she is willing or able to. This works extremely well. All our costs are covered."

Recently, Dr. Federle received the Great Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany. Her altruistic commitment is "the glue that holds our society together," the president said in his laudation. How true!

In addition, it shows how much an individual can achieve when it comes to mitigating the impact of the present crisis. While the majority complains, criticizes, and claims, a minority takes a lead in being part of the solution. If the opposite were true, maybe this crisis would already be history. 

Nicola von Lutterotti is president of the board of trustees, the Max-Planck Institute for Immunobiology in Freiburg and has advised them on the issues of public relations. She is a member of Sciana: The Health Leaders Network.

By:Nicola von Lutterotti
array ( 'tx_ttnews' => array ( 'tt_news' => '2272', ), )