Belgium postpones non-essential hospital work to deal with COVID surge

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BRUSSELS/LIEGE (Reuters) - Belgium will need to postpone all non-essential hospital procedures to deal with a surge in COVID-19 infections, Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told lawmakers on Tuesday, days after warning of a COVID “tsunami” hitting the country.

The nation of 11 million people had 816 new COVID-19 infections per 100,000 residents over the past week, according to official figures, second only to the Czech Republic in Europe, and has lost 10,443 people to the disease, among the world’s highest per capita fatality rates.

Health authorities decided on Monday to test only patients with symptoms and hospitals are now admitting half the numbers of patients as during the peak of the first wave in April. But the number of patients in intensive care units, which stood at 446 on Tuesday, is doubling every eight to nine days.

Martial Moonen, head of internal medicine at Liege’s Citadel Hospital, told Reuters staff were stretched to the limit.

“There is really a significant shortage, which is linked not only to absences, but also to illnesses and burnout,” he said.

Yves Van Laethem, a senior virologist who speaks regularly at national COVID briefings, told newspaper La Derniere Heure that Belgium may need to return to full lockdown if there is no reversal of the surge in infections and hospital admissions.

All cafes and restaurants closed from Monday, but there are question marks over the effectiveness of such measures. Experts have said half of Belgians were not respecting social distancing rules in September.

“Everyone knows that people meet in private houses and gather there in groups of clearly more than four people,” student Michelle Urquiza told Reuters television.

Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Clement Rossignol, Editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Nick Tattersall