At the Antwerp outbreak of the coronavirus, Mayor Bart De Wever (N-VA) and provincial governor Cathy Berx complained about a lack of detailed data about where the infections had occurred. After being laughed at about Netflix-based contact detectives, the contact investigation turns out to be insufficient to stem an outbreak.
In that contact investigation, the data that customers leave in the catering industry is not being used for the time being. Each time, an accusing finger is looked at at the Flemish Agency for Care and Health, the leading Flemish administration in the fight against the corona virus.
The data on the number of infections is collected by the federal scientific institute Sciensano, which forwards it to the regional care agencies. In Flanders, this is the Agency for Care and Health, for which Minister of Welfare Wouter Beke (CD&V) is responsible. The information provides an important weapon. If it is known where the virus is proliferating, targeted measures can be taken.
No data at district level
Data per municipality is publicly available, but it is not at district level. When the number of corona infections in Antwerp started to rise on 13 July, De Wever and Berx complained about this in the media. Care and Health is working on a dashboard on which mayors can find the figures, but this will only be available on 1 August. Spokesperson Joris Moonens points out that information at a neighborhood level was soon shared with the Antwerp city services. “We provided the information we had,” he says.
We are aware of the criticism that everything is going too slow.
Care and Health will also work with the Sciensano figures. The Agency uses them to conduct contact investigations. Those who are infected with the coronavirus are contacted and asked to pass on their contacts. In turn, these people are called and asked to isolate themselves and have them tested.
At least that is the theory. In practice, it appears that contact tracing has many teething problems. There were complaints that the information flow was too slow, so that people were only called a few days after a positive test from a contact person. Complaints were raised about contact tracers who must adhere to sterile questionnaires and a ban on asking about ‘privacy-sensitive’ issues, including at one point even the respondent’s profession. This makes good contact detection impossible.
In addition, the number of contact investigators was reduced from 500 to 150 after too many staff had turned their fingers in June, when the number of infections was low. In the meantime, there are 300 again, although this should increase as the number of infections increases sharply. “We see the number of phone calls rising,” says Moonens. In the week from 17 to 23 July, this concerned 10,342 calls, double the previous week.
Contacting people is one thing, doing something with the information collected is another. Case managers are supposed to map clusters. If it is known where someone has become infected – that question has not yet been asked – other people who were in that place can also be detected. There will also be mobile teams that can go to places where many people have been infected to obtain extra information. In an ideal world, it is also checked whether people keep to their quarantine.
Hardly or no quarantine control
Vacancies are still open for both case managers and mobile teams. However, because that part of the contact tracking is not yet active, we are missing valuable information. In the absence of case managers, nothing has yet been done with the customer registration in the catering industry that was introduced last week. Ditto for quarantine: there is hardly any control over this.
The shortcomings in the corona approach are a source of annoyance for many mayors. The region around Kortrijk therefore wanted to start detecting infected persons itself, but Zorg en Health does not like that. It leads to annoyance about the ‘amateurism’ of the Agency. “All the clichés about a non-working administration come together,” it sounds.
The Agency for Care and Health is often accused of being a rigid government agency. Words like imperial sexton mentality fall because of the far-reaching regulatory drive. The sector points to the contrast with the federal public health service. He also had problems, because CEO Tom Auwers was temporarily put aside in the heat of the crisis. However, the federal administration can work more freely and thus shift more quickly, while in Flanders it must provide feedback to the ministerial cabinet for everything. And let Beke be the minister who came under attack because he reacted too slowly to the corona crisis.
You can throw a lot of money at it, but if something could not function properly for years, you can not expect it to be pulled into one two three.
“We are aware of the criticism that everything is going too slow,” says Moonens. ‘But since February we have been in crisis mode and one after another has come our way. We can’t help but put priorities forward, finish them, and then move on to the next. So much work has been done. ” He points out that we are better off in terms of protection material and in terms of test capacity than during the first wave and that important steps have also been taken in contact tracing.
In addition, the administration points out that for years there was hardly any investment in epidemic prevention. “Then you shouldn’t be surprised that the administration is not ready. You can throw a lot of money at it, but if something could not function properly for years, you can not expect it to be pulled into one two three. Not even if everyone breaks down. ”
It leads to the administration being on his gums. The hope was that the virus would give us respite until September. This would create the time to blow out and get all the structures in order. “Unfortunately that did not work,” says Moonens. “You can blame that on contact tracing, but it’s also a result of our behavior. We all started to have too much contact, which allowed the virus to spread easily. ”
What is the Flemish Agency for Care and Health?
The Flemish Agency for Care and Health is the administration behind the Flemish welfare policy. It is responsible for those sub-domains of care for which Flanders is competent. This includes aspects of hospital policy, care for the elderly, care for people with disabilities and parts of mental health care. Because Flanders is also competent for prevention, it plays an important role in combating epidemics. The agency employs 314 staff. It has been led by Dirk De Wolf, a former CD&V cabinetard, since 2014. The administration follows the authority of Flemish Minister for Welfare Wouter Beke (CD&V).