Belgium’s Consultative Committee held its first meeting of 2022 on Thursday, January 6th to evaluate the current measures to fight the spread of the Omicron variant. It continues to spread in Belgium and around the world. “The situation is better than at the same time last year but the coming weeks and months will still be filled with difficult moments,” said Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s Prime Minister.
There will certainly be positive news, but also obstacles. The 5th wave has well and truly started.Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s Prime Minister
De Croo gave the floor to Steven Van Gucht, spokesman for GEMS (the scientific committee responsible for providing analysis to policymakers). Van Gucht presented the current data on the epidemiological situation in Belgium, especially in relation to the Omicron variant, which is considered to be more contagious than the previous Covid-19 variants.
The evolution of the last few days shows record rates of new infections with more than 28,000 or even 29,000 new cases announced on January 4th. The end of year celebrations may explain these figures, but also the Omicron variant which is spreading very rapidly and which can infect people already immune to Covid-19. Initial models show that the number of new cases continues to rise.
“We expect the peak of infections to be reached around mid-January, with 30,000 to 125,000 new cases per day,” said Van Gucht, then pointed out that the current increase is currently more important in the Brussels Region, Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant. “This variant is more likely to affect the big cities,” he said. “But the other provinces are likely to be affected soon. Just like the youngest, currently on school vacations”.
Van Gucht noted that the peak in hospitalizations is likely to be at the end of January due to a delay between new infections and hospitalizations. The expected peak could be as high as 400 to 1,300 hospital admissions per day, for a total occupancy of 2,500 to 10,000 inpatient beds.
In intensive care, however, “it is very difficult to make predictions,” said Steven Van Gucht. If Omicron is less severe and the third dose of vaccine works well, the capacity should be sufficient to deal with this fifth wave. Currently, it is confirmed that an infection with the Omicron variant has a 50-75% chance of developing a severe form of the virus.
Regarding people in nursing homes, Van Gucht said that the situation remains favorable, but that an increase is felt in hospital admissions and deaths. This can be explained by the delay since the third dose, injected three to four months ago for most of these people in nursing homes.
According to data from the Belgian Institute of Public Health Sciensano, the booster dose improves protection against the virus by 60 to 70%. However, this dose only protects 40% ten weeks after the injection, according to data from abroad. Van Gucht said the data confirm that 46% of Covid-19 patients in intensive care are unvaccinated. “Vaccinated people are six to nine times less likely to be admitted to the ICU than non-vaccinated people. The vaccine decreases the risk of death by a factor of eight,” said Van Gucht.
Prime Minister De Croo confirmed the emphasis on the administration of the “booster” dose for the entire Belgian population. He recalled the importance of going as soon as possible to a branch or a vaccination center to obtain this booster dose of vaccine. It also reminded citizens of the importance of airing rooms indoors, wearing a mask and even a FFP2 mask in places that are too narrow or near fragile people. Teleworking remains mandatory four days a week. The measures concerning the hotel and catering industry and indoor and outdoor events are also confirmed.
A crisis management plan, or barometer, will be launched by Corona Commissioner Pedro Falcon. This barometer will allow better analysis and decision on the necessary measures to deal with Covid-19.
About this future barometer, “everything” is still to be discussed in the draft that was presented on Tuesday to the representatives of culture, according to Minister of Public Health Frank Vandenbroucke. “Our decision-making procedures during the last Consultative Committee were not the best,” he admits. “We need a ‘reset’ of the method and this is what we will try to do”.
Vandenbroucke has already tried to respond to the first fears expressed by the culture sector, which is concerned about maximum occupancy limits of the rooms without proportion to the real capacity. What was presented was a practical application of the barometer for a certain type of event.
The logic would be different for the hotel and catering industry, or for youth, according to Vandenbroucke. It will be a matter of “creating a more balanced decision scheme between sectors, more predictable and proportional, a well-structured set of logical and coherent measures according to the epidemiological situation”. There will be no automatic triggering. Vandenbroucke affirmed that the barometer will ask the Consultative Committee to evaluate certain measures when a threshold is triggered.