Belgium will begin screening staff in nursing homes in the country, health officials agreed, as a preventative measure to protect residents from a potential new wave of coronavirus infections at the approach of autumn.
By screening staff, health officials in Belgium are also aiming to prevent having to reimpose strict confinement measures on nursing home residents.
The decision was approved by the Interministerial Conference on Public Health, which gathers health officials of the federal government health as well as officials of the regional Walloon, Flemish and Brussels governments, and whose conclusions are then individually applied by each regional government.
Flemish Health Minister Wouter Beke announced the decision only for Flanders on Monday, but the measure will also be applied in Brussels and Wallonia, in what Beke said was an effort to secure one of the main entryways of the virus into rest homes.
“Because the people who work in nursing homes are the most intense channel [of contact] between residents and the outside world,” Beke said. “Of course we cannot blame them, but it is this way that the virus is introduced in many cases.”
During the first wave of the pandemic in the spring, the virus raged largely unchecked through the country’s nursing homes, as the government struggled to keep pace with care home employees’ calls for increased protections and wider testing.
In Flanders, preventative testing will be launched at a maximum frequency of once per month on nursing homes located in areas that go over the alarm threshold of 50 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants in a 14-day period.
The Flemish Agency for Care and Health will carry out the evaluations to decide which nursing homes are subject to personnel screening, Het Nieuwsblad reports.
“Already, facilities in 11 cities and municipalities have already been asked to organise preventative testing of employees,” Beke said.
Stépahie Wilmet and Pascal Devos, spokespersons for Wallonia’s and Brussels’ health ministers, respectively, confirmed the measure in a text message, with Devos adding that nursing homes in Brussels were already subject to preventive screening and that testing was done on all nursing home personnel, including non-medical staff.
Wilmet said that officials estimated to begin carrying out the preventative screenings from next week, in a measure which coincides with reports that the situation in Belgian nursing homes remained relatively stable in comparison to the spring.
Mortality rates among nursing home residents have been a contentious subject in Belgium since the first wave of the pandemic began to recede, with many challenging the accuracy of figures related to nursing home deaths, which account for more than of all of Covid-19 deaths in Belgium.
According to the latest figures by federal health institute Sciensano, nearly 60% of all Covid-19 deaths in Belgium concern residents above the age of 75.