Flanders has launched an emergency plan to curb the soaring spread of the coronavirus pandemic in nursing homes which opposition lawmakers said came "too late."
Flemish Health Minister Wouter Beke said the situation in nursing homes would be tackled with a ten-point plan unveiled on Wednesday before the regional parliament's Welfare Committee.
The plan includes the continued enforcement of a lockdown in all care centres since it was first imposed on 13 March, days after Brussels and Wallonia took similar measures.
Guidelines for how to isolate and treat suspected or confirmed cases as well as strategies to make up for shortages of staff and of protective gear and medical equipment are also part of the strategy.
Additionally, a dedicated task force, operational from Thursday, will be charged with the daily monitoring of nursing homes in Flanders, Beke said on Twitter.
Nationwide efforts to ramp up testing in nursing homes will also be a central element of the plan, with the regional health agency this week sharing data on how the over 11,000 test kits would be distributed among nursing homes.
In an online statement, the agency said that all staff and residents were being tested in a number of nursing homes but that there were still not enough resources to do that in all nursing homes in Flanders.
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'Out of control'
The minister's plan was faced with sharp criticism as opposition lawmakers accused Beke of failing to act earlier despite having access to pertinent data.
MP Hannelore Goeman chided Beke for failing to raise the issue with federal authorities despite the fact that nursing homes started tracking cases since 18 March.
"Literally hundreds died in the second half of March," Goeman said, according to De Morgen, while MP Björn Rzoska likened the situation in nursing homes to a "blazing fire that has escaped our control."
"When I saw the numbers yesterday, I was shocked. The virus is now present in half of nursing homes," Rzoska said, adding that it was "incomprehensible" that action was only taken "after 3.4 weeks of the crisis."
The lawmakers' statements come after a network of Flemish health care organisations said it was "urgent" for authorities to increase testing in nursing homes in a press statement published on 26 March.
On Tuesday, Belgium's death toll soared as nursing homes in Flanders belatedly reported 241 deaths of residents with a confirmed or suspected case of Covid-19.
Outbreaks expected 'sooner or later'
Figures released Wednesday by Beke showed that 619 nursing home residents in Flanders were thought to have died from Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.
The numbers also showed that out of the 773 nursing homes reporting figures to Beke, roughly half had been hit by the virus which had led over a dozen homes grappling with varying degrees of staff shortages.
In a statement to De Standaard, Beke said that the impact of the virus was unexpected and that an outbreak in Flemish health centres was expected "sooner or later."
"You can't do much more than we did —we couldn't brick up the nursing homes, could we? So we knew that, sooner or later, the nursing homes would be contaminated," he said.
In a TV appearance on Wednesday, as nursing homes began to alert of shortages of bottled medical oxygen, Beke said the newly created task force had made an "explicit appeal" urging hospitals to respond to nursing homes' call.
Beke said that hospitals must act with "solidarity" as it was "also in their interest" that nursing homes managed to get the situation under control to avoid an influx of hospital admissions.
The Brussels Times