Virologist speaks out about low vaccination rate in Brussels: “Many deaths could have been avoided”

The Brussels-Capital Region is paying a high price for its relatively low vaccination rate. The number of coronavirus infections and the number hospitalisations and deaths of people with COVID-19 in the capital are far higher than is the case elsewhere in Belgium. 

Speaking at Friday morning’s public health science institute Sciensano press conference, the virologist Professor Steven Van Gucht said that “many deaths could have been avoided”. The virologist also called on politicians to be more positive in the way in which they communicate about the coronavirus measures that are still in place. 

Compared with the rest of the country, the number of deaths of people with COVID-19 and the number of people with the virus that are becoming so ill that they require hospital treatment are very high in Brussels.

One in three COVID-19 patients in Belgium that are being treated on an intensive care ward are being cared for on an ICU at a hospital in Brussels. The reason for this has been well-published: the vaccination rate in the capital is far lower than in Flanders and Wallonia.

In an attempt to change this the regional authorities in Brussels intend to extend the scope of the Covid Safety Ticket and make it a prerequisite to being able to gain entry to, for example, bars and restaurants. This approach has proved successful in France.

However, Professor Van Gucht has his doubts as to whether it will have a big impact on the vaccination rate in Brussels.

"It could provide a “quick win” in the short term, but it would not serve to increase confidence in vaccines. The corona pass should in the first instance be used to increase safety at high-risk events and not to limit people’s freedom”.

Around 75% of the people with COVID-19 that are requiring hospital treatment have either only been partially immunised or have not been vaccinated at all. A quarter of those hospitalised have been fully immunised. Professor Van Gucht is keen to stress that that these are mainly older people or people from other vulnerable groups. Furthermore, around half of them were taken to hospital for another reason than their COVID-19 infection. 

"Tone of communication about measures needs to change"

There is currently little change in the figures relating to the pandemic in Belgium. The number of new infections is falling slightly, while the number of hospitalisations is rising a little. Professor Van Gucht says that the slight fall in the number of new infections is a positive sign. Nevertheless, he still expects infections to rise during the autumn, although it is difficult to predict how high the peak will be.

The virologist believes that it would not be a good idea to abandon all the coronavirus measures now. He believes that the measures that are still in place enjoy public support and it is important to capitalise on this.

“With a limited number of measures, we can keep the curve under control. The models show this too. You don’t have to impose a new lockdown”.

"But it is important that we continue to communicate in a positive way about face coverings and that we don’t continuously say that we aren’t free”.

“A face covering is irritating, but it gives us the freedom to be able to organise things. It’s like a seatbelt in a car. That isn't a limit on our freedom, but something that we do for our safety”, Professor Van Gucht said. 

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