Take rising Covid-19 cases into account when making summer plans, warns expert
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Take rising Covid-19 cases into account when making summer plans, warns expert

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With the more infectious coronavirus variants in mind, people have to take into account that the figures will likely go up again when planning things this summer, warned infectious disease expert and GEMS chair Erika Vlieghe on Friday.

An epidemic like this is a “triangular relationship” between the virus and all its variants on the one hand, and people’s behaviour on the other, with the safeguard of vaccination coverage between the two, Vlieghe said on Flemish radio on Friday.

“Those three keep each other in a grip, but if one of them gets stronger, then you have a problem,” she said, referring to the more infectious variants, such as the delta variant (first detected in India).

The fact that many people are travelling abroad this summer “may be part of the problem, but not all of it,” Vlieghe said. “Even now, in the last few weeks, we have all been able to relax the reins a bit – and a number of people have done so very enthusiastically – so our behaviour in Belgium also plays a role.”

However, from past experience, like that of the summer of 2020, experts and authorities know that travel is an important factor in bringing in the virus, or new variants, according to Vlieghe.

“Of course, everything depends on how you travel and what you do there,” she said. “There is a difference if you are in a mobile home somewhere in Brittany, or if you go to the southern seaside to go out all night.”

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Belgium is currently considering implementing stricter measures for travellers returning from Portugal, of which Vlieghe is strongly in favour.

According to her, it would be a good idea to add Portugal to the list of “very high risk areas” of countries where the variants of concern are dominant, created by the Belgian authorities.

“Currently, there are many countries outside Europe on that list, but Portugal also meets those criteria at the moment,” she said, adding that the virus does not care about EU borders.

Additionally, Belgium, as well as most other EU countries, is still in full vaccination mode. “Only one-third of our population is fully vaccinated. That is not enough to not see an impact if the delta variant starts spreading wildly, as it is doing now in the UK, and also in Portugal.”

The fact that some areas, such as Spain, are becoming red zones again is due to a “confluence of events,” said Vlieghe, adding that the most important factor is the fact that many people travelling right now have not been fully vaccinated yet.

“Secondly, being fully vaccinated gives you very good protection against serious illness – and that is, of course, the most important thing – but it is not a watertight jacket against carrying the virus,” she said.

“What we are concerned about is that fully vaccinated people can carry the virus across Europe, then bring it back into their own country, to people who have not yet been vaccinated.”

On Thursday, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced that the four EU-authorised vaccines all protect people against all coronavirus strains, including the delta variant, but that does not mean vaccinated people cannot pass it on, Vlieghe stressed.

“The vaccines protect people against getting so sick in the first place that they can die or become seriously ill from the virus,” she said.

Additionally, the vaccines also work “pretty well ” against moderate illness, according to Vlieghe. “However, for transmission, there is also a clear reduction, but it is not watertight.

“And if something is not watertight, it means that if you then have several unprotected contacts with a lot of people at events, parties, family gatherings, you can still spread that virus,” she said.

“Of course, if all those people around you are fully vaccinated as well, then the virus will not be able to take hold, and it will have less impact,” Vlieghe added. “But we are not that far yet.”