Soualiga Newsday Features

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Lockdown effect still to be felt as cases fall but positive test rate rises

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The national lockdown has still not made a serious impact on the levels of coronavirus infection after three weeks, despite a 16.2% drop in the number of positive tests, latest weekly figures show.

The fall in recorded cases was largely the result of fewer tests being carried out, with 56,440 people testing positive in the week to January 5 compared to 67,388 the week before, according to the public health agency RIVM.

However, the proportion of positive tests increased from 13.0% to 13.7%. Prime minister Mark Rutte acknowledged during Tuesday’s debate on the government’s pandemic strategy that the chances of being able to ease the lockdown on January 19 were receding.

‘If you look at the current infection numbers it doesn’t look very hopeful,’ he said. A more positive indicator was the number of hospital admissions during the week, which was down by 9.5% at 1,713.

However, the total number of patients in hospital is still at its highest level since the spring at more than 2,800, a quarter of whom are in intensive care. Intensive care admissions went up by 10.5% to 334 last week, while the number of deaths recorded also increased from 583 to 621, a rise of 13.7%.

Tuesday’s daily figures showed a continuing downward trend, with 6,412 positive cases in the previous 24 hours, bringing the seven-day average down to just over 8,000.

The reproductive number R dropped to 0.91 on December 18, according to the RIVM’s latest calculations, indicating the virus was in decline at that point. A figure of 0.91 means that on average 100 infected people will pass the virus on to 91 others.

The infection rate in children has fallen dramatically since schools were closed on December 16. In the week of December 20 teenagers had the highest positive test rate of any age group, with 725 infections per 100,000 people.

In the most recent figures that proportion has more than halved to 321, the second lowest figure excluding under-13s. Among the 25 health board regions the highest concentration of infections was in Twente, where 510 in every 100,000 residents tested positive in the last seven days.

Rotterdam-Rijnmond, which had the highest levels in September, now has the lowest rate of 214 positive tests per 100,000 people.



Coronavirus cases drop below 7,000 but no let-up in hospitals

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The number of new coronavirus infections dropped below 7,000 for the first time in nearly four weeks – but the downward trend is not yet being seen in hospitals.

The public health agency RIVM reported 6,671 cases in the 24 hours to 10am, nearly 10% fewer than last Monday, when the numbers were affected by data processing issues.

In the last seven days numbers have declined by an average of 17% week-on-week. However, the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital climbed to 2,845, an increase of 135 since Sunday, with the number in intensive care rising from 704 to 715.

Both figures are at their highest level since April. The virus is also continuing to spread through nursing homes, with 844 institutions reporting at least one new infection in the last two weeks.

That figure is higher than at the peak of the first wave on April 15, when 828 nursing homes reported recent infections. Another 65 people were reported to have died after contracting the virus, against an average for the last week of 91.



Dutch border police bar 10 British nationals from entering the Netherlands

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Dutch border police have refused 10 British nationals’ entry to the Netherlands since January 1, when UK visitors were no longer covered by EU regulations, broadcaster NOS said on Sunday.

Since January 1, the UK is no longer considered an EU country and its nationals are barred from visiting the Netherlands unless their journey is essential, because of coronavirus rules.

‘They all had a negative PCR test, but had forgotten the basic rule, that they need to have an urgent reason to come, such as work or serious family issues,’ border police spokesman Robert van Kapel told NOS.

The Dutch rules bar all non-residents from outside the EU who come from a high-risk country and who do not have an urgent reason to visit. ‘Some of them wanted to visit Amsterdam and one man wanted to fly to Spain via Amsterdam to teach his children to ski,’ Van Kapel said.

‘But that is not the idea.’ Last year border police stopped 1,900 people from entering the Netherlands, most of whom were blocked at Schiphol airport. Of them, some 900 were banned because of the coronavirus regulations.


The British in Europe association issued a statement on Sunday evening saying the New Year, and the end of the Brexit transition period, has brought travel chaos for UK residents in the EU trying to return home.

Britons around the EU have encountered difficulties, with people barred from flights or having their passports stamped, even though they possess valid UK passports, EU residence documentation and PCR tests, the organisation said.

The most widely reported problems relate to Spain but similar issues have also arisen on entry to France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden, British in Europe said.

Although several British nationals with a residency permit have reported having their passports stamped on arrival at Schiphol, DutchNews is not yet aware of any cases in which British nationals with Dutch residency permits have been barred entry.



Government u-turns on vaccinations, acute care workers now a priority

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The Dutch cabinet has done a u-turn and decided to first start vaccinating 30,000 acute care hospital staff against coronavirus and, possibly, to bring forward the vaccination programme start date.

Hospital chiefs and other experts had been urging the government to start the programme with hospital staff in an effort to reduce absenteeism rates. Health minister Hugo de Jonge had said repeatedly that the Netherlands would not start rolling out its vaccination programme until January 8, with nursing home staff and residents the first in line for the jab.

However, on Saturday he announced the rethink, saying that the aim is to have clarity by Monday about when the new approach could start. ‘The worrying situation in acute care has been partly prompted by illness among health care workers, which is often corona-related,’ the health ministry statement said.

‘That is why acute care workers are becoming part of the group to qualify first for vaccination.’ Earlier this week, hospital patient coordination head Ernst Kuipers and acute care chief Diederik Gommers said hospital workers should be vaccinated first because this is essential to keep hospitals functioning.

On Wednesday it emerged that dozens of Dutch hospitals may no longer be able to offer critical but non-urgent care. Kuipers expects hospitals to be treating some 3,000 coronavirus patients by early January, well above the total at the height of the first wave, he told Nieuwsuur on Wednesday evening.

Currently, around 9,500 new cases of coronavirus a day are being registered, although the figures may be distorted by the Christmas and New Year break. Gommers described the government’s change of heart as ‘great news’.

‘This is really important to use, in particular given the information about the new British variant,’ he is quoted as saying in the Volkskrant. ‘At the moment we are just coping… but if that variant takes hold in the Netherlands, more staff will become ill and patient numbers will increase as well.’



Dutch lockdown may continue into February as disputes over vaccination strategy continue

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – It will be February at least, when some sections of the public have been vaccinated, before the Dutch lockdown can be eased, Jaap van Dissel, head of the Dutch public health institute RIVM, told the AD in an interview.

‘We are going to start vaccinating in January, then the second dose will follow in mid-February,’ Van Dissel said. ‘So, from that date, there could be some relaxation of the rules for the group that has been vaccinated.’ In addition, officials have agreed that should the number of positive tests start rising again, tougher measures will be brought in more quickly than this time round, Van Dissel said.

The current lockdown will run until January 19 at least, prime minister Mark Rutte said when it was announced in mid-December. Rutte and health minister Hugo de Jonge will hold a press conference on January 12 to outline what the next stages will be.

Currently, around 9,500 new cases of coronavirus a day are being registered, although the figures may be distorted by the Christmas break. Meanwhile, RIVM experts have told the Volkskrant and news website that the Netherlands is so late in starting vaccinating because officials had prepared a strategy based on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Most EU countries have already kicked off their vaccination programmes but the Netherlands will not start until January 8, a situation which has been widely criticised.

The Pfizer vaccine, which is delivered in large batches and has to be kept extremely cold, was approved by the European Medicines Agency first, and that meant the strategy needed to be overhauled, Hans van Vliet and Jaap van Delden said.

The Dutch plan had been based on the current scheme for the annual flu vaccination, which is administered via nursing homes and family doctors. But the Pfizer vaccine is most suitable for large scale vaccination programmes, they said.


‘I understand the unease, but it is really is a very complicated puzzle,’ Van Delden told ‘And for us it is not a competition to see who is the first to start in Europe.’ ‘What really matters is how quickly you reach which level of coverage,’ said Van Vliet.

‘In six to nine months, all European countries will have vaccinated a large number of their populations.’ The government has decided to first focus on vaccinating care workers in nursing homes, followed by home residents.

And health minister Hugo de Jonge said again on Wednesday that it will not be possible to start the vaccination programme before January 8.


However, two other prominent experts in the campaign to combat coronavirus have said hospitals should start vaccinating their staff as soon as possible. Patient coordination head Ernst Kuipers and acute care chief Diederik Gommers say this is essential to keep hospitals functioning.

On Wednesday it emerged that dozens of Dutch hospitals may no longer be able to offer critical but non-urgent care. Kuipers expects hospitals to be treating some 3,000 coronavirus patients by early January, well above the total at the height of the first wave, he told Nieuwsuur on Wednesday evening.



Primary schools to stay shut until January 18, testing expanded to more under-12s

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Primary schools and daycare centres will not reopen before January 18, education minister Arie Slob confirmed on Thursday. ‘I wish it was otherwise,’ Slob said.

‘But opening schools earlier is not on the cards, because the healthcare system is still too much under pressure from coronavirus.’ In addition, the cabinet has agreed that children under the age of 12 should also undergo tests if they have coronavirus symptoms.

Government advisors recommended including younger children in the testing system in an effort to further stem the spread of the virus, particularly the British variant which has been found in a Rotterdam primary school.

Until now, children under the age of six have not been tested. Those aged seven to 12 are only tested if they have a temperature or have breathing problems, or if they have been in contact with someone with coronavirus.

A further 9,719 positive coronavirus cases were reported to the public health institute RIVM in the 24 hours to Thursday 10am. That is a rise of 232 on Wednesday and higher than the average over the past week.



Amsterdam hospital opens third ICU to cope with rise in Covid-19 admissions

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Intensive care units are continuing to grapple with their biggest influx of patients since the peak of the first coronavirus wave despite signs that the number of infections is levelling off.

Another 9,504 cases were reported by the public health agency RIVM on Wednesday, bringing the average for the last week down to 9,476. A week ago, the average figure was more than 11,000. Another 289 patients were admitted to hospital with Covid-19, while the total number fell slightly from 2,761 to 2,714. However, intensive care occupancy increased from 684 to 712 as 54 patients were transferred to the ICU, the highest figure for a single day since April 9.

The OLVG hospital in Amsterdam opened a third intensive care unit on Wednesday morning to try to ease the severe pressure on its two regular facilities. The extra unit is located in the city’s Oost district.

The latest weekly figures from the Dutch Healthcare Authority (NZa) revealed that only half as many operations as usual went ahead in the last week, while 29% of hospitals said they would have to cancel some critical scheduled operations, defined as those that are supposed to be carried out within six weeks of referral.

The number of referrals from doctors’ surgeries was 78% below the normal level. The long Christmas weekend was partly responsible for the latter figure, the NZa said.



Crucial operations under threat as coronavirus spreads through hospitals

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Hospitals in the Netherlands could have to postpone crucial operations such as cancer surgery and kidney transplantations if the number of Covid-19 patients continues to rise, the healthcare authority NZa has warned.

A spokesman told the Telegraaf that ‘critical scheduled operations’ that normally have to be carried out within six weeks were under threat because of a shortage of beds and staff.

More than 2,700 people are currently being treated in hospital for coronavirus, including nearly 700 in intensive care, surpassing the peak of the second wave in early November, and the numbers are still rising.

‘If operations of this kind are delayed for longer, it could potentially lead to permanent damage to health or a shorter lifespan,’ the spokesman said. David Jongen, vice-chairman of the Dutch Association of Hospitals (NVZ) told NOS Radio 1 Journaal that he was deeply concerned by the high level of sickness absence of staff who were infected with coronavirus.

Jongen, who works at the Zuyderland hospital in Zuid-Limburg, said: ‘We are a millimetre away from the point where we have to postpone operations such as those for women with breast cancer. We need people who are working there to care for patients in intensive care. It’s unrelenting.’

Hospital closed

On Tuesday evening the St Jansdal Hospital in Harderwijk closed to new admissions for at least 12 hours, including emergency patients, because it no longer had space for them.

People needing immediate treatment are being redirected to Amersfoort, Apeldoorn, or Zwolle. Maternity services are unaffected because they are housed in a separate facility. The situation is being reviewed at 10am on Wednesday.

Relinde Weil, chair of the hospital’s board of management, said: ‘We have not been able to transfer enough patients to other hospitals because they are struggling with the same problem.

Unfortunately, we have therefore had to take the decision to close this evening. ‘We know big efforts are being made at national level to increase hospital capacity to make space for coronavirus patients.

Let’s hope that this succeeds in the very short term.’



Locations for first round of coronavirus vaccines announced

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The full list of 25 locations where healthcare workers will be vaccinated from January 18 has been published by the national network of health boards (GGD).

Three locations in Utrecht, Rotterdam and Hart van Brabant will begin vaccinating from January 11, with the other 22 joining a week later. The Netherlands is the only nation in the European Union that has yet to start its coronavirus vaccination programme.

Healthcare workers will be able to call the GGD call centre to make an appointment from January 4.

The second round of vaccinations will begin for most staff from February 1, with the expectation that all healthcare workers will have received their two injections by March 1. It will take another seven days for the vaccine to protect them against infection.



Coronavirus cases down by 12% in last week but hospitals continue to fill up

SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The number of coronavirus infections reported in the last week fell for the first time in a month – but health officials said it was too early to tell if the current lockdown was working.

In the seven days to Tuesday 67,388 new cases were reported to the public health agency RIVM. The figure is 18.1% lower than the previous week, but that figure included around 6,000 cases that were reported late because of data processing problems.

The RIVM calculated that the underlying trend was a drop of 11.7%. Nearly 15% fewer tests were carried out during the holiday week, partly because several testing facilities closed on Sunday during Storm Bella.

The proportion of tests that were positive went down slightly from 13.7% to 13.0%.

The reproductive number R was calculated to be 1.15 on December 11, slightly lower than a week earlier, meaning that every 100 infected people will pass the virus on to 115 others.

If the figure is above 1 it indicates that cases are still increasing. RIVM virologist Aura Timen told NOS that the lower positive rate was a ‘bright spot’ but overall, the figures offered little to cheer two weeks after the government tightened the lockdown rules to close all non-essential shops, schools, and leisure facilities.

‘We had hoped to be able to see the effect of the lockdown today,’ Timen said. ‘We have indeed seen a fall in the number of new cases, but it’s been an unusual week with a long Christmas weekend and that may have affected people’s willingness to be tested.’

Cities below average

Around the regional health boards Twente had the highest concentration of positive tests, with 553.2 per 100,000 people, while Friesland had the lowest rate of 225.9. The three health boards including Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague all had infection rates well below the national average, in contrast to the autumn when they were the major hotspots.

The daily figures showed a continuing decline in the number of infections but no sign of hospital admissions slowing down. Another 7,541 new cases were reported in the 24 hours up to 10am on Tuesday, bringing the average for the week down to 9,608.

There are currently 2,761 patients being treated for Covid-19, an increase of 181 since Monday, while another 26 people are in intensive care, bringing the number to 684.

The virus is also continuing to spread through nursing homes, with 792 locations reporting a new infection in the last two weeks compared to 699 a week ago. At the peak of the first wave in mid-April 828 nursing homes had at least one recent case.


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