No plans to relax Covid-19 measures yet: Dutch PM; Gov't to use app for patient tracking

Social distancing in Amsterdam's Oosterpark
Two walkers Amsterdam's Oosterpark keep a safe distance from each other during the coronavirus pandemic. April 3, 2020Jacqueline TellingaSupplied to NL Times

With reporting by Zack Newmark.

The Dutch Cabinet was advised not to relax measures put in place to curb the spread of Covid-19 anytime soon, a source confirmed to broadcaster NOS on Tuesday. According to information leaked from the RIVM’s Outbreak Management Team (OMT), which advised the cabinet on Monday, no steps should be taken to ease restrictions until there are five criteria that are met.

The news was revealed shortly before a scheduled Tuesday evening press conference with Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Health Minister Hugo de Jonge, where Rutte both praised people in the Netherlands for largely respecting the social distance measures over the past warm weekend, and told them to absolutely continue to maintain distance over the upcoming Easter weekend. The Cabinet has also adopted a strategy to use an app to track people who tested positive for coronavirus and anyone with whom they have come into contact.

"The number of infections is increasing less rapidly and the number of patients in intensive care units is also increasing less rapidly," Rutte said. "The measures are having an effect," he said pointing to new hospitalizations slowing down. However, he said relaxing the rules the country runs the risk of another peak in new infections, and "we could not make a bigger mistake" than ignoring the rules now. "Otherwise, [all progress] will be wiped out in no time at all," he said.

"There is a greater chance of starting to normalize after April 28 if we stick to the rules," Rutte said. "We are on the right track, and we must keep doing this together."

The criteria from the OMT stipulate that the number people being infected by another person should be less than one “for some time”, that the country’s ICU capacity is not overwhelmed, that there is a sufficient pool of data to analyze, and that there is enough testing taking place. The final criterion for an eventual ‘transition strategy’ would require that measurements be carried out to “quickly pick up on the effects of the transition”.

Effectively, the Prime Minister acknowledged that everything would be taken step-by-step, and no decision beyond April 28 would take place before April 21. The possibility exists that the social distancing rules could be relaxed, but a whole revision of all rules may be needed as well. "This is going to be a long haul," he said.

The advice to keep measures in place was given after it was announced that 4,300 patients who tested positive for coronavirus are being treated in hospitals, including over 1,400 in intensive care. While new hospitalizations have been steadily falling, patients who require care in ICU often need to remain there for two or three weeks. This causes a burden on the ICU system as more new patients are continually brought in.

Apps to track spreading coronavirus infections

The need to acquire more data matches De Jonge's plan to use software to combat the spread of the virus. "Two apps will soon be at the core of the new testing policy, he said, but development of the apps has not been completed.

One of the apps would be used to track who someone infected with coronavirus has directly contacted, and to help determine the source of an infection cluster. "This is only possible if we are very careful with privacy," he said. De Jonge said it could also be possible for the app to send a push notification to someone who has been in contact with an infected person.

The second app would be used by someone to monitor their own symptoms.

The Netherlands is ramping up testing in attempt to satisfy one of the five criteria. At present, between 3,000 and 5,000 tests are administered each day. This number is set to rise to 29,000 tests per day over the course of the next several weeks, health minister Hugo de Jonge announced last week.

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