NL-Alert urgently warns people to stay home as crowds flock to popular areas

NL-Alert for coronavirus
An NL-Alert was sent to people in the Netherlands as crowds gathered in popular areas to enjoy the weather. March 22, 2020NL TimesNL Times

After months of gloomy weather and winter storms, the Netherlands finally started a weekend bathed in sunshine. The timing could not have been worse: The country is no exception to the coronavirus pandemic, with politicians and health officials repeatedly telling everyone to stay home as much as possible and maintain social distance while out on the street.

The Dutch government issued an NL-Alert with an “extreme warning” status on Sunday at 11:30 a.m., ordering people to keep a distance of 1.5 meters from each other, and to stay home if they have even a slight cold. The warning was sent to mobile phones around the country, with growing reports of thousands of people flocking to popular good-weather areas like the North Sea coast, wilderness paths, and nature areas.

“Protect yourself and the people around you,” the alert said, reminding everyone that the fight against coronavirus requires everyone working together. Then in English, the alert stated: “Keep your distance to others.”

The Alert was sent out after warnings from Dutch coastal municipalities told people to stay home, as did lower House of Parliament leader Khadija Arib, who said she was “very shocked by how many people seem to underestimate this crisis.”

"In Brabant, people are dying from coronavirus and far too many people above the rivers pretend they don't know anything about it," said Gert-Jan Segers, the leader of the ChristenUnie political party. By "above the rivers", he was mainly referring to people who live north of Noord-Brabant and Limburg, two provinces which have been significantly impacted by the spread of the virus.

The fear, health officials say, is that the spread of coronavirus leads the Dutch hospital system to become overwhelmed by intensive care needs. Many have already suspended scheduled and elective surgeries to free up ICU beds, while more spaces are created in the hospitals’ intensive care units.

As of Saturday, the number of patients testing positive in the Netherlands swelled to 3,631, with 836 requiring hospitalization at some point since the end of February. That last number grew by nearly 200 in a single day, pushing the country’s total number of Covid-19 intensive care patients to 354.

The country normally has 1,150 ICU beds, roughly 6.61 per 100,000 residents, of which half are normally used in emergencies, and 225 are used for elective care, including scheduled surgeries. Hospitals have suspended planned care to free up as many beds as possible, while Health Minister Hugo de Jonge says another 350 ICU space are able to be quickly made available.

In a letter to parliament on Friday, De Jonge said his team is purchasing and sourcing available ventilators and working on a staffing solution to further boost the country’s ICU capacity to 2,000, or 11.49 beds per 100,000 residents. That figure would still lag behind Italy, which in 2012 had 12.5 ICU beds per capita and has been overwhelmed by 54,000 coronavirus cases and the deaths of 4,825 patients.

The Netherlands association of intensive care workers warned that the country may have to manage up between 500 and 1,000 Covid-19 patients in ICU next week.

More measures were being introduced in the Netherlands on Sunday to control the crowds. The mobile carts where fish is sold in Zandvoort were shut, while Amsterdam said it was going to enforce spreading out stands at its street markets, which could close altogether if conditions are not met.

“Our nature reserves are flooded with thousands of visitors,” the organization which oversees the sites said on Twitter. It told people to go home and stay home, and under no circumstances should people visit the sites in the middle of the ongoing pandemic.