Belgium Extends School Holiday in Attempt to Break Virus Wave
(Bloomberg) -- Belgium ordered primary schools to extend the Christmas holiday in its third attempt to break a Covid-19 wave that’s among the worst in Europe after experts singled out unvaccinated children as a catalyst of infections in broader society.
Virtual schooling will be required at least half of the time for children 12 years and older starting Monday, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said at a briefing in Brussels. Other new measures include a ban on indoor events with more than 200 participants, and a mandate to wear masks from the age of six.
Belgium resorted to closing schools in the first wave of the pandemic in spring of last year and also extended regular school holidays by a week in the second and third wave, but those measures always coincided with restaurants and bars also being shut. As regional education ministers had vowed schools would be the last to close, Belgium decided to keep restaurants open this time, with an unchanged closing time of 11 p.m.
“There’s one glimmer of light,” De Croo said. “When we compare ourselves with other countries that have to cope with very high incidence, mortality in Belgium is relatively low thanks to the vaccines.”
About 1.7 million Belgians have received a booster dose so far, and De Croo vowed that a total of 4 million booster doses would be administered by year-end. Belgium currently counts 8.7 million people who are fully vaccinated, out of a population of about 11.5 million.
This is the third round of restrictions imposed by Belgium over the past few weeks. Virus case numbers have continued to rise sharply despite the measures, which include mandatory telework and a closing of nightclubs.
Spread in Schools
Very few children end up in the hospital due to Covid-19 infections, but the Belgian government is concerned that they’ve helped transmit the virus. The European Medicines Agency has approved vaccines for kids 5 years and older, but Belgium hasn’t announced its plans for rolling those out.
More than 4.5% of all children in Flemish primary schools tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks, according to Geert Molenberghs, a biostatistician and member of the experts group that advises the federal government. That’s more than twice the 14-day incidence in the overall population, which at 2,106 per 100,000 is currently the third-highest in Europe, behind Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Countries across the world are introducing new measures in the face of the omicron variant with Germany announcing on Thursday strict national restrictions on the unvaccinated as lawmakers consider a national mandate. U.S. President Joe Biden called on health providers to expand the availability of vaccines and booster shots as well as extending a mask mandate for domestic travel in a new strategy to curb the pandemic in a speech at the National Institutes of Health yesterday.
Even before the latest move, 115 out of about 4,000 schools in the northern Dutch-speaking region of Flanders were fully closed on Thursday as a result of infections, according to Michael Devoldere, spokesman for the Flemish ministry for education, sports and animal welfare. Under current Belgian rules, single classrooms must close as soon as three students in the same room test positive. That rule will be brought down to two infections.
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