Belgium scales back coronavirus testing strategy as labs face crunch

Belgian officials are defending the decision Monday by the country’s nine regional health ministers to limit coronavirus testing just to people with symptoms, saying they have no other choice in light of labs getting overwhelmed.

Until now, anyone who was in close contact with a positive case or who had returned from a “red zone” abroad also had to get tested. But with cases skyrocketing, the health ministers decided to switch course to ease pressure on testing labs.

Virologist Steven Van Gucht, who advises the government on its coronavirus policy, described the new policy as “not ideal” in an interview with Belgian broadcaster VRT.

“But we can’t demand the impossible,” he added. “When the capacity is insufficient, we have to adapt and see what the next best thing is.”

Belgium’s national health minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, took a similar view Tuesday, saying that “you have to keep things feasible in this serious situation.”

Some critics are saying it’s the wrong move at the wrong time — especially for the country’s test-and-trace efforts.

The problem, said Rik Van de Walle, rector of the University of Ghent, is that the country’s test-and-trace strategy has “failed since the end of last week … [and it] will take at least a couple of weeks to set up a new strategy.”

But the decision was broadly seen as the best among worsening options.

Vandenbroucke warned on Sunday that the country is nearing a coronavirus “tsunami.” In the country of 11 million, there are on average 8.422 new infections per day. The number of patients in the hospitals has doubled since last week. And with testing labs under pressure, there are longer waiting periods before getting results. Almost six out of 10 people have to wait longer than a day, especially in Brussels and the southern part of Belgium.

For people who don’t have symptoms but are still deemed as “high risk” due to their travels or contacts still have to quarantine, with the period extended from 7 to 10 days. The new system is in place until November 15.

As in other EU countries, one reason that more cases are reported is that far more testing is being done than in the spring. Belgium has ramped up its testing capacity from 4,000 tests a day in March to around 60,000 to 65,000 tests a day in October. The country’s new coronavirus commissioner, Pedro Facon, said on Tuesday that daily testing capacity will be ramped up to 100,000 by the end of the year.  

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