As the number of infections is rising steeply with no sign of slowing down, virologists Marc Van Ranst and Steven Van Gucht are predicting that January and February will be very “unpleasant” for Belgium.
The second week of the Christmas break is not over yet, but the infection rates are already rising sharply, with an average of 11,000 cases a day (a 69% increase compared to last week) – but the peak has not been reached yet, the virologists warn.
“We expect an enormous amount of virus circulation in the coming week, and therefore even more infections. We are going to have two very unpleasant months, with a lot of sick people, both in the office and in healthcare,” Van Ranst and Van Gucht said in a joint interview with De Standaard.
The more infectious Omicron variant in combination with the infections contracted during the end-of-year festivities is fuelling this infection wave, according to Van Gucht. “Many people gathered under one roof during the parties. You had a mix of generations. So it was not super safe.”
Not just a light cold
On top of that, those who went skiing over the holidays are slowly returning before school is due to start again on Monday.
Van Ranst also warned that people should not get a false sense of security. “I have the impression that many people see Omicron as a kind of light cold: a little virus they do not have to worry about too much.”
While he acknowledged that the chances to end up in hospital are 50% to 70% lower after infection with the Omicron variant, it can still cause a lot of trouble as it more easily reinfects people who already built up immunity after vaccination or a previous infection.
They pointed out that the lower chance of ending up in hospital is negated if twice as many people become infected with the Omicron strain. “Without the booster shots, we would now be in a hard lockdown, just like the Netherlands. But we must remain cautious. Less sick does not mean not sick. Caution remains in order.”
“It will be a very difficult period, but we will have to make do with the measures we have,” Van Ranst added, stressing the need for extra ventilation, avoiding crowded places and wearing an FFP2 mask on public transport.
Teleworking the entire week instead of just four days – as is currently mandatory – would also be best. “If the boss allows it, I would not hesitate.”
“We will have to grit our teeth a little longer,” Van Gucht said. “In March, I predict improvement. But we are still waiting for the models from biostatistician Niel Hens. It will take time before we can say something with some accuracy about the characteristics of Omicron. Guesses and broad parameters make the models go in all directions. We have to wait until the data are more reliable.”