Anti-coronavirus measures likely to remain for months, virologists say

Covid-19: Sign in Amsterdam's Oosterpark instructing people to stay 1.5 meters apart
Covid-19: Sign in Amsterdam's Oosterpark instructing people to stay 1.5 meters apartNL TimesNL Times

Most of the measures in place to combat the spread of coronavirus Covid-19 will likely remain in force for months yet to come, according virologists from three Dutch universities, based on their analysis of figures from health institute RIVM. The Ministerial Crisis Management Committee is meeting again on Thursday afternoon, but no new major measures are expected, NOS reports.

The RIVM does not want to predict how long anti-coronavirus measures will be needed, but director Jaap van Dissel did tell parliament on Wednesday that there is still a long way to go in the fight against this virus. The RIVM and intensive care association NCIV expect the peak of coronavirus patients in ICU in early May, and that the number of occupied intensive care beds will only dip back to the current around 1,200 in mid-July. And then the virus will not be gone yet, Van Dissel said, according to the broadcaster.

Van Dissel stressed that the measures in place seem to be having an effect - that the infection rate of each Covid-19 patient dropped from nearly two to around 0.3 other people infected. But that does not mean that the measures can be relaxed. "You have to maintain a lot of measures until you have the virus completely under control. Because if you stop, the spread will immediately increase again," he said.

According to virologist Mariet Feltkamp of Leiden university medical center LUMC, the end is only really in sight once a vaccine is available or if you are sure that a large part of the population is immune to the virus. This may happen sooner than expected if more people turn out to be immune than is currently believed - something now under investigation - or if research confirms that children don't or hardly transmit the disease. Apart from that, Feltkamp thinks that "at the earliest there will perhaps be some room available again in July", she said to NOS.

"You have to be extremely careful about letting go of measures," Feltkamp  said to the broadcaster. She expects that this will happen in phases, with events, clubs, restaurants and other catering establishments being the last to be released. Because a "long stay in a poorly ventilated room, with everyone yelling in each other's ears" is disastrous for preventing a virus' spread. 

Virologist Bert Niesters of UMC Groningen agrees with this assessment. According to him, it will still be months before things like movie cinemas reopen. He imagines that restaurants will be allowed to open earlier than busy bars or nightclubs. According to Niesters, the important thing is to gather as much information as possible. Because with more information, you can target measures more effectively.

Erasmus MC virologist Eric van Gorp believes that hygiene measures - washing your hand properly and regularly, coughing into your elbow, and touching your face as little as possible - are here to stay. These will become "habitual measures", especially because virologists are already considering a second revival of Covid-19 during the winter, he said. Regarding the term of the current measures, Van Gorp said that "everyone senses that we will not be done in May." 

The government measures, taken based on RIVM information, stretch two months ahead. No permitted events are allowed until at least June 1st. And measures like social distancing, working from home, and closed schools were recently extended until April 28th. Van Gorp called this a well chosen deadline. "It is good to have a reasonable period of time, after which you can see the effect of the measures and possibly make adjustments." According to him, such a clear time frame and not too much anticipation can also prevent disappointment if, for example, entrepreneurs have to stay closed for longer. "The strength lies not in predicting, but in support and solidarity. That is the quickest way to find a solution," he said. 

On Thursday afternoon, the Dutch government's crisis management committee is meeting again to discuss the Covid-19 crisis. There are a number of items on the agenda, but no new major measures are expected to be announced. 

Flights from New York landing at Schiphol will be discussed. These flights are only bringing Schengen area residents home from abroad, because the borders are closed to non-EU residents. Due to the large coronavirus outbreak in the American city, the interest of Europeans desperate to come home and KLM still being able to fly some planes must be weighed against the interest of curbing the spread of the virus. The question of whether people arriving at Schiphol should be tested - taking into account the limited tests available - and whether they can be quarantined will also be discussed.

With spring weather and the Easter holidays approaching, the government is also worried about Netherlands residents and possible tourists from Belgium and Germany flocking to Dutch beaches and recreational areas. The crisis management committee will also discuss how to deal with such travelers.