The official coronavirus figures published each day by the government health institute Sciensano will this week give a picture of the effect on the epidemic of the first major relaxation of the lockdown since it was started in mid-March.
According to biostatistician Niel Hens of the universities of Hasselt and Antwerp the numbers of new infections and hospital admissions this weekend will reflect what was going on two weeks ago, when home visits were allowed for the first time, to coincide with Mother’s Day.
The day after that, the shops opened up again, and a number of other measures were taken to relax the lockdown partially.
An infection with Covid-19 takes about two weeks to show, although the person infected is contagious before realising anything is wrong. According to that timetable, if there were more infections on the Mother’s Day weekend, the results will filter through about now.
The effects of the first phase of deconfinement on May 4 were reassuring. “There were no increases,” Hens said. “We had estimated in advance that that would be a limited risk.”
Now is the time to measure the effects of the non-essential shops opening.
Hens is not only a widely consulted source for epidemiological data, he is also a member of the group of experts planning the exit strategy (GEES), and an advisor to the government’s National Security Council.
At the time of the introduction of the second stage of phase one, several experts warned of the risks: Marc Van Ranst said the measures would give the virus more opportunity; Dr Erika Vlieghe, who chairs GEES, said they were “very concerned”. And Hens himself was quoted as saying, “I fear the worst”.
However if there is a rebound effect this weekend, it will not be a return to the worst of the previous situation. The overall trend since mid-April has been downward, for new cases, for hospital admissions, for patients in ICU and for fatalities. Over the last few days, however, a small increase in hospital admissions has been recorded, from 47 on May 17 to 71 yesterday.
The possibility of a second wave of the virus later in the year, however, he rates as very realistic.
“The question is when it will come, and whether by then we will be any further forward in the search for antiviral treatments.”