Infectiologist Erika Vlieghe (UZA) warns against an overly passive attitude towards corona now that autumn is approaching. “Going through the occasional covid infection is not the best plan to maintain your immunity.”
The GEMS corona expert group has been dismantled for some time, but work is being done in the wings on the Strategic Scientific Committee, which must continue to monitor the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic. Former GEMS president Erika Vlieghe (UZ Antwerp) is also part of it. ‘We are not quite finished yet in terms of organization and logistics,’ she says. ‘But as experts, we never stopped having discussions and conversations behind the scenes.’
With autumn and winter approaching, the nervousness is rising again. Temperatures are dropping, we are more indoors together. An ideal opportunity for the coronavirus to rear its head again. And that while the sky-high energy bills will make working from home unaffordable for a lot of people. ‘Teleworking helps with a big wave, but we have to take into account that people will be less willing to stay at home this time.’
Do you understand that the energy crisis is pushing corona into the background?
Erika Vlieghe: Of course. Everyone was more than tired of corona – that also applies to the experts. We have already made great strides in managing the crisis, especially in the build-up of immunity. The relative calm of the past few months also proves this. So I’m not necessarily pessimistic. But closing your eyes hermetically for corona doesn’t solve anything. Winter is coming: let’s make sure that corona occupies as small a place as possible.
How do we do that when we flock to the office?
flying: We have to look at it situation by situation with common sense. And then you can use the well-known precautions: mouth masks, keeping your distance, good ventilation, testing, making agreements about the canteen and not standing around the coffee machine with ten colleagues.
However, here and there we read that the ‘winter of freedom’ is within reach.
flying:(fast) That’s bullshit. The message is not, “Guys, get it on.” Another autumn wave is coming and hopefully we can get it under control more easily than last year. But that is precisely why boosters remain very important.
If half of all boosted over-65s receive a fourth jab, we have a view of a manageable hospital wave, according to simulations by UAntwerp and UHasselt. Are we not set for a quiet winter?
flying: Counting on ‘being chiseled’ is never a good plan. (laugh) There are a lot of conditions for that scenario, by the way. No one knows if there will be new variants. Moreover, such a wave does not mean that we will not feel anything about it. It will also have an impact on primary care and absenteeism in various sectors. The encouraging thing is that the waves are getting smaller and we know better how to handle them. Yet every time there is the temptation to declare the pandemic over. It will be less bad, but it’s not over yet. We also have to get to half of the vaccinated over-65s.
Are there reasons to doubt whether half of the over-65s will get a fourth shot?
flying: That scenario threatens if we hear even more communication à la ‘winter of freedom’. We must say loud and clear that the immunity that we have all built up must also be preserved. Going through a covid infection every now and then is not the best plan.
Why should I get a fourth shot in my thirties?
flying: The added value is in the first instance among the over-65s, and by extension the over-50s. I would mainly focus my energy on convincing those groups. But I would not advise anyone who is younger to get a booster. The vaccine protects against infection for several weeks. For example, for people in education, and certainly in healthcare, a jab is useful in the fight against staff loss.
Only take measures when the situation is already serious: we have already experienced it with the Belgian corona approach. Do you think we should now prepare the citizen for the winter?
flying: They are already working on this in Germany. Compare winter tires for your car. We need a no-nonsense approach. Warn people that as fall and winter progress, it will be necessary to wear face masks in some areas. That is not a drama, but a temporary option.
For a certain group, the Covid Safe Ticket (CST) was a drama. Do you see that coming back?
flying: At the CST, there are also sensitivities around privacy, ethics and the legal. A mask is a direct prevention tool, the CST was intended to organize meetings as safely as possible in anticipation of a high degree of immunization.
But the CST still doesn’t belong in the garbage?
flying: This mainly requires a political discussion.