RIVM downplayed seriousness of Covid at start of pandemic: report
Public health institute RIVM seriously considered that the coronavirus pandemic would be "catastrophic" in February 2020, even while publicly they said that there was no cause for concern. The health service was talking about tens of thousands of coronavirus deaths even before the first infection was reported in the Netherlands, NOS reports based on thousands of emails between the RIVM"s management team members released through an appeal to the Open Government Act.
The RIVM did not want to answer questions about the documents but did give a general response pointing out that the documents are discussing scenarios, not predictions, according to the broadcaster.
Early in February 2020, Jaap van Dissel of the RIVM gave his first coronavirus briefing to parliament. "It is still too early to say whether we should be concerned. Too much is still unclear," he said.
But on February 9, 2020, alarm bells were already going off at the RIVM. A "response team" was established to estimate the consequences of the coronavirus for the Netherlands. Their conclusions weren't reassuring. "The impact of a nCoV [new coronavirus] epidemic is classified as a serious to a catastrophic threat to public safety," one researcher emailed to his superiors. The "catastrophic" classification is the most serious and takes account of over 10,000 deaths and a disruption to society.
RIVM directors, whose names were blacked out in the documents, consulted with the Ministry of Public Health (VWS) about the above conclusions. On February 10, one RIVM director wrote in an email. "VWS agrees that we should take a moment and calculate different scenarios of disease burden/spread rate/required care capacity."
The RIVM and Medical Care Minister Bruno Bruins did not mention the analysis to parliament or the media in the days that followed.
On February 13, an RIVM employee emailed about preparation for the "containment phase" and the "mitigation phase." That same day the RIVM decided to go to VWS the next day to "give an idea of what awaits us." With the message: "Worst case scenario: 6X as bad as seasonal influenza in terms of the number of deaths." An average flu wave causes about 6,000 deaths per year.
The notes of that meeting state that a person whose name was blocked out "wants to focus on purchasing oxygen at VWS (so that the elderly can receive medical care outside the hospital, how has not yet been worked out), and stocking up on medication (remdesivir and other antiviral drugs)."
That same day, the RIVM published an information video about the coronavirus on its website and Twitter. In the video, Aura Timen, director of the RIVM's Center for National Coordination of Infectious Disease Control, said: "At the moment, there is no reason to worry about the coronavirus." She said people with a fever or cough probably have something other than the coronavirus. "I don't think we underestimate the problem in the Netherlands."
A week later, Van Dissel was in parliament for his second technical briefing. He compared the then-current situation in China with a flu wave in the Netherlands. "That doesn't mean that I want to put the message here that nothing is wrong, so don't get me wrong," he said, according to NOS. "But I thought it would be good to offer some perspective and nuance concerning the flu that we have in the Netherlands. In essence, on average, what is going on in Hubei is what happens in the Netherlands with the flu."
Van Dissel did not mention the meeting with VWS on February 14.
On February 23, the RIVM discussed the coronavirus clusters in Italy. On February 25, an RIVM board member said in an email that the government could do little to contain the coronavirus in the Netherlands. "It is too complex and too big. We as a society have to solve it," he writes. The RIVM mentioned this approach in the email: We are social people with a need for face-to-face and physical contact, but we now have to limit this for perhaps quite a long time (months instead of weeks), and that is not fun and has a price." A bit later in the email: "I think we can best communicate this above and mobilize the population."
On February 27, Minister Bruno Bruins of Medical Care was on the live program Feiten en Fabels talking about the coronavirus when he received a note reporting the first coronavirus infection in the Netherlands. Just over two weeks later, schools were closed, and social distancing was introduced in the Netherlands - the start of the first lockdown.