The idea that the latest flare-up of the Covid-19 epidemic can be dealt with by local measures and contact tracing local clusters is mistaken, as the virus spreads beyond the reach of municipal authorities, according to epidemiologist Dr Boudewijn Catry.
This week the government produced a manual for local mayors, setting out how to deal with sudden increases in the numbers of new infections affecting towns and villages across the country.
The manual was on the agenda for approval by today’s meeting of the national security council, made up of federal and regional governments together with experts. Core among the actions to be taken is the step of identifying hot-spots, tracing contacts of those infected and isolating everyone.
But, Dr Catry told the VRT, “The virus is now spreading more and more among the general population. It is not enough to count on contact tracing to contain it.”
But the way the new upward curve in infections is developing suggests that local clusters – such as the family in Ledegem in West Flanders who held a wedding anniversary party that resulted in 12 family members becoming infected – are no longer the main driving force behind the increasing numbers.
“Whereas we initially saw that [the increase] was concentrated around certain situations, there is now increasing confirmation that the virus is spreading among the general population,” he said.
And contact tracing, which is intended to stop an infection from radiating out to contacts and their contacts in ever-expanding ripples, is not the main weapon in the current circumstances. The main weapon needs to be the public response to the safety measures.
“We are asking the public to respect all measures as quickly as possible,” he said. “It should be clear to everyone that we cannot rest on our laurels.”
That means – and there is wide agreement that many people appear to have forgotten the rules:
– staying home as much as possible, and certainly if feeling unwell; – observing scrupulous hand hygiene with sanitiser or soap and water; – maintaining a distance of at least 1.5m wherever possible, while trying to avoid situations where it is not; – wearing a mask where required, and even when not required, if a safe distance cannot be ensured, such as on a busy shopping street; – limiting the number of contacts with people from outside the home; and – avoiding gatherings wherever possible, even if they are kept within the permissible limit.
The situation is bound to get worse before it gets better, the experts agree. The increase in hospital admissions and deaths, though still slight, is a natural consequence of the rise in the number of new infections.
As Dr Catry pointed out yesterday at the Sciensano press conference, today’s rising infections number will translate into a higher number of hospitalisations and fatalities in about two or three weeks.
“We are already seeing an increase in the number of hospital admissions, and to our great dismay in the number of intensive care cases,” he said. “It is now all hands on deck to turn that situation around as quickly as possible.”