‘Contact tracers’ hired as part of corona crisis exit strategy


As the Security Council prepares to announce an exit strategy for the corona crisis shutdown, hospital admissions are down and regions are training contact tracers to track infections

3 May looming

The three regional governments are recruiting people to carry out “contact tracing”, a worldwide effort being used to warn people that they have come into contact with someone with Covid-19. Contact tracing is a long-used method to track and stop the spread of infectious diseases.

The decision to hire 2,000 contact tracers across the country followed confirmation that people with the coronavirus are most contagious in the 48 hours before they show symptoms. Once someone tests positive, has symptoms confirmed by their doctor to likely be Covid-19, their name can be given to a contact tracer.

The tracer will determine who the patient came into contact with over the last few days and try to track them down. They will be told to self-isolate

Flanders is currently hiring 1,200 contact tracers, who will then go through a short training and be ready to work by next week. Most of them will work from a call centre, while others will head to people’s homes and workplaces to warn them in person.

Those contacted will be asked to self-isolate. This is particularly crucial because they will become most contagious themselves in the two days before experiencing symptoms.

Contact tracing is expected to help control the spread of the coronavirus as Belgium begins to relax lockdown measures currently in place. Those measures, which involve making only essential journeys outside of the home and not gathering with other people, are in place until 3 May.

The Security Council will meet again on Friday to discuss an extension of any of the measures and an exit strategy. An announcement is expected on Friday afternoon or evening as to the next steps for Belgium.

In other corona news, the exhibition Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution – one of the most significant art events in Europe this year and the cornerstone of Ghent’s Van Eyck Year – will not be extended. According to VRT, the museums that loaned some of the painting for the exhibition, meant to run until 30 April, cannot extend the loans. According to city councillor Sami Sougiur, ticket-holders will be contacted personally and offered a refund.

The rest of the Van Eyck Year, however, is being extended, to June 2021. This includes several other exhibitions related to Van Eyck’s work and times, special tours and a pop-up shop. Other date-specific events could go ahead or be postponed, depending on the dates.

At the coast, meanwhile, a woman of 103 has recovered from the coronavirus. The Ostend woman was diagnosed with Covid-19 while she was staying in a rehabilitation centre recovering from an operation to her knee.

Whoever wants to compare our number with other countries has to divide it by two. Any other comparison isn’t relevant at all

- Virologist Steven Van Gucht

She had been tested for the virus before her operation and was negative. During her stay at the Koningin Elisabeth Instituut (KEI), however, she began to exhibit symptoms and was retested. She was moved to a special wing, where she spent three weeks.

“Obviously, we were very worried,” said KEI director Gerd Callewaert. “No matter how strong, a woman of this age is very vulnerable. Fortunately, we saw her condition improve little by little. Now, 21 days later, she can be moved back to a regular room and continue to rehabilitate from her surgery.”

Her recovery from the virus “is a real boost for all the personnel here – for everyone here,” said Callewaert.

Belgium got another boost this week when it was announced that 172 people were admitted to hospital on Monday with Covid-19 – the lowest number since the shutdown began. “We are under the 200 mark for the first time since 18 March,” confirmed virologist Steven Van Gucht at the daily press conference on Tuesday.

While it’s good news, Van Gucht emphasised that it’s crucial that citizens continue to conform to the measures to control the spread of the virus as more people are still being admitted to hospital than are being discharged. “In the past 24 hours, 107 people were released from hospital,” he confirmed. “That brings the total number of patients in hospital to 4,976. That’s an increase of 56” on the day before.

The number of patients in intensive care are also up slightly, as are the number of people on oxygen. Today’s press conference is expected to confirm that Belgium has passed the 6,000 mark for the number of people who have died from complications due to the virus.

Belgium’s death rate is one of the highest in the world, though authorities have repeated that this is because of how it is reporting its figures. All recent deaths in nursing homes are being attributed to Covid-19, though not all residents were tested.

Also, Belgium is including nursing home deaths – responsible for half of all coronavirus-related deaths – in its tally, while most countries are not. Should nursing homes deaths be removed from the figures, Belgium’s death rate would fall in the middle of rates around the world.

“Whoever wants to compare our number with other countries has to divide it by two,” Van Gucht told Politico at the weekend. “Any other comparison isn’t relevant at all.”

Photos, from top ©Petri Oeschger/Getty Images, ©Ritchie Sedeyn/Defence Department/Belga handout