Professor Steven Van Gucht, the virologist who represents the coronavirus task force at the daily report on the country’s disease statistics, has said they will continue to report on fatalities as they have done since the beginning of the epidemic.
Van Gucht was responding to growing political pressure to change the way of counting coronavirus deaths, brought about by international comparisons which appear to show Belgium as one of the countries with the highest death tool from the disease.
According to the latest figure reported yesterday (Thursday), Belgium has now recorded 4,857 deaths caused by the virus. On a per capita basis, that number – 424 per million inhabitants – places Belgium ahead of even countries like Spain and Italy, which suffered heavily and earlier than Belgium.
However the difference comes in how different countries record their statistics.
Belgium counts as coronavirus deaths not only those whose cause of death was officially recorded by testing in a hospital, but also patients who died in care homes without being tested individually. Their deaths are, in many but not all cases, simply presumed to be a result of the virus based on observed symptoms.
In some other countries, where patients in care homes die without being tested, their deaths are not included in coronavirus statistics.
“We are not concerned in the least with our international rankings,” Van Gucht said yesterday.
Politicians, however, are rather more concerned.
Now that testing in care homes has been expanded, the results show that the number of deaths due to the virus may have been overestimated by as much as half. Politicians worry that an artificially inflated death toll creates a bad image of Belgium, which aims to be regarded as a pharmaceutical and biotech reference.
Prime minister Sophie Wilmès told VRT radio this morning that she had approached Sciensano, the health department which monitors the epidemic, to re-evaluate the counting system.
“Transparency is very important,” she said. “But transparency also means that there must be certainty that these are Covid cases, especially if no tests are done. With tests we can refine and measure the real impact on the number of deaths.”
Van Gucht is resistant to such political pressure.
“In a good recording system you take into account both confirmed and suspected cases,” he said. “That is good standard practice. Any system can overestimate or underestimate. That is inherent in a counting system.”
The inclusion of deaths not confirmed as corona deaths is all the more important where testing is incomplete, as it has been since the beginning.
“Otherwise, you would greatly underestimate the number of Covid deaths and cases. As test capacity increases, which is currently the case, we will be able to confirm more and more of those deaths in the lab.”
Today, he said, 30% of deaths in residential care homes are confirmed cases. Previously, confirmation by testing was only available in 3% of cases.
“The percentage will probably increase in the future, but we are not going to depart from the principle that we count both confirmed and suspected cases. Because that is standard practice,” he repeated.