Belgian surgeons sound alarm over scarcity of masks, reagents and drugs

Medical staff wearing protective suits at CHU Saint-Pierre hospital in Brussels, Belgium, 24 March 2020. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Two surgeons from the Hospital Saint-Pierre (ULB) in Brussels published a carte blanche to the attention of Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès over the weekend, sounding the alarm over the lack of medical and protective equipment to fight against the coronavirus. Wilmes responded with a letter of her own on Tuesday (24 March).

In their open letter by Guy-Bernard Cadiere and Didier De Cannière, entitled ‘La double peine du personnel hospitalier’, the two surgeons raised attention to the exposure of medical staff.

“It is no longer acceptable to hear your colleagues announce to us with a contrite smile and dangling arms that “the masks have been stolen”. (…) It is unacceptable to be told that only a fraction of patients and staff can be tested for lack of reagents,” Cadiere and De Canniere wrote.

Both called for the mobilisation of Belgian industries and laboratories to provide Belgium with sufficient production capacity.

Earlier last week, Belgian authorities confirmed the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office had opened a fraud investigation after a €5 million order for protective masks failed to turn up. Belgium joined several European neighbours in a group purchase for protective gear from a Turkish company several weeks ago.

Read more about the situation in Belgium here.

In her response letter, Wilmes referred to the decision to appoint a task force, set up by Health Minister Maggie De Block and led by Minister Philippe De Backer, the ‘minister of masks’, on the management and restocking of equipment.

“We must be able to have a precise view on stocks and needs in the short and medium-term, to centralise the offers and to choose them by privileging the quality criterion; reorganise the supply chain if necessary based on these; to mobilize the actors already present on our territory in terms of production and to make possible the conversion of existing lines for necessary equipment; finally, we have to order in continuous flow what we cannot produce here in sufficient quantity”, Wilmes wrote.

The prime minister also confirmed that in total, over the past ten days, 11.5 million surgical masks and 459,000 FFP2 masks have been received in Belgium, while several companies are developing domestic mask production projects.

“Belgium also wants to be able to develop screening on a massive scale,” Wilmes said, responding to the surgeons’ call, but did not specify any timeline on when the testing capacity could be used.

On Friday (20 March), Belgium’s newly formed federal government announced it would provide €1 billion urgently to help hospitals face the coronavirus crisis as the situation in the coming days could become “extremely intense” for healthcare services.

The health ministry spokesman said the coming days would be “extremely intense” because the number of patients in hospitals will continue to increase but hospitals were ready to cope, with a total capacity of 1,900 beds, at least in the beginning.

In her letter, Wilmes suggested the amount “can be completed if necessary” and pledged that the government “will take all the necessary steps to ensure that hospital funding is up to the task in the crisis” and “budgetary considerations will not be added to their daily concerns”.

Belgium declared a lockdown for the entire country over the coronavirus crisis from noon on Wednesday (18 March) until 5 April, with people still allowed to go out to buy food, see the doctor and exercise. It later also gradually closed its borders, following the example of several European countries,

Wilmes said the situation will be re-assessed when this period ends and next steps decided.

The various emergency measures taken to fight against COVID-19 as well as their duration will be evaluated on Friday (27 March) during a National Security Council meetings, extended to the Minister-Presidents of the regions, including recommendations presented by experts and scientists, the prime minister’s spokesperson announced.

Belgium enters lockdown over coronavirus crisis until 5 April

Belgium declared a lockdown for the entire country over the coronavirus crisis from noon on Wednesday (18 March) until 5 April, following the example of several European countries, including neighbouring France, which took the same decision earlier this week.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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