The “incomprehensible” decision that all Belgian hospitals have to reserve 25% of their intensive care beds for Covid patients will have major consequences for vaccinated people, according to Geert Van Assche, UZ Leuven chief physician.
Requiring all hospitals in all Belgian regions, including those with a high vaccination coverage (like most of Flanders), to free up 25% of their ICU beds for Covid patients is unfair, he explained on Flemish radio on Thursday.
“Covid vaccination is currently a personal choice in Belgium, but that has implications,” Van Assche said. “The increase of severely ill Covid patients in certain regions such as Brussels was, in our opinion, avoidable.”
“This has major consequences for the vast majority of vaccinated citizens,” he said.
Additionally, it will cause delays in regular care once again, while the UZ Leuven will be catching up on previous postponed care until well into 2022, Van Assche estimates.
“In reality, more than a quarter of the beds for regular patients will be lost. The government is not taking into account the beds that are closed due to staff shortages,” he said. “And that is becoming a big problem after three Covid waves.”
According to Van Assche, the solution is obvious: vaccinating as many Belgian citizens as possible as quickly as possible, through a general vaccination obligation, if necessary.
“I know it is not obvious from a legal point of view, but we have to do something,” he said. “Flanders is the world champion in terms of vaccination coverage. We should at least expect this to increase in the rest of the country as well. If a friendly request does not do that, then an obligation will eventually have to be put in place.”
Van Assche also raised the issue that healthcare staff are becoming less and less willing to take on extra patients from other regions if most of them have not been vaccinated.
“These will be difficult discussions on the work floor, I can assure you,” he said. “We have accepted dozens of patients from Brussels, Wallonia and northern France in the past year and a half, in the UZ Leuven alone.”
“In hospitals in regions that are world champions in terms of vaccination coverage, however, you really cannot explain that properly at the moment,” Van Assche emphasised. “I think people all over Flanders are starting to ask themselves some serious questions.”
In a reaction given to Radio 1, Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said that the complaints from hospitals are justified because “we already have a dramatic backlog of delayed care.”
At the same time, however, he stressed that it was normal for hospitals “to have to take precautions when there is a sharp increase in admissions of Covid patients to intensive care units.”
“We would only be letting patients down if we did not take strong enough action against the virus,” Vandenbroucke said. “There is only one good solution: remain cautious, do not announce that everything will be over tomorrow, vaccinate more and hang on a little longer.”