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Coronavirus: How does Belgium's contact tracing operation work?

14:33 20/05/2020

Belgium has an army of 2,000 "contact tracers" whose job is to call people with a positive coronavirus test and identify the people with whom they have recently been in contact. The people they identify will be invited for a test - and told to self-isolate for two weeks if the result is positive.

Virologist Emmanuel André, who until recently fronted Belgium's daily coronavirus press briefing, is coordinating the contact tracing efforts. He says the following few weeks will be "crucial" in the fight against the virus.

The contact tracing operation is regionalised, with 600 tracers in Wallonia, 200 in Brussels and 1,200 in Flanders. Most of the tracers work in a call centre, but some are field workers whose job is to visit people who cannot be reached by phone.

For Belgium's contact tracing efforts to be effective, each of us needs to start noting down our daily contacts. "Make it a habit to take note of the people with whom you have close contact," wrote Emmanuel André on Twitter. "That way, in case you get sick, these people will be able to receive support."

If the contact tracing hotline makes contact with you, because you have been in contact with an infected person, you should keep an eye out for potential symptoms and limit your contacts to the bare minimum.

Since their work officially began on 11 May, Belgium's contact tracers have managed to get in touch by telephone with about 60% of people who have recently tested positive for coronavirus. "On average, each person gave us the details of two other people that they had been in contact with. This proves that the self-isolation measures are being correctly applied," a spokesman said.

However, Belgium's federal crisis centre fears that some of the people who are called by the contact tracers, because they have tested positive for the virus, are not being 100% honest about who else they have been in contact with.

Between 400 and 500 people are contacted every day by the call centres. Most of them claim they have been in close contact with one or two other people, "which is very low", interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem said.

He stressed that "you will not be penalised or stigmatised" for admitting to having seen several people. A high-risk contact is anyone who has been within 1.5 metres of you for more than 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, Belgium is preparing to roll out a contact-tracing app this summer. Testing will begin in early July. The legal framework for the app is being put in a bill before parliament. It also needs the green light from each of Belgium's three regions.

Finally, a word of warning: scam text messages are being sent out, claiming to be from Belgium's official contact tracing centres. The messages say you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive - and that you should click the link to find out more. Official contact from the contact tracers will come from the phone number 02 214 19 19, or by text message from the number 8811.

Photo: Laurie Dieffembacq/Belga