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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.

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 virologist 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. 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. Belgium's contact tracing app in the fight against coronavirus will be ready by September, according to Karine Moykens, chair of the Interfederal Testing & Tracing Committee. The app aims to supplement Belgium's other contact tracing efforts, which have mostly been done manually by telephone. Use of the new app is voluntary. It uses Bluetooth to record who you have been in contact with. If you test positive, your GP will supply a code, to be entered into the app, which will then send your contacts a message informing them that they should take a test. According to a recent survey, four in 10 people in Belgium say they are willing to install and use the app.

Belgium's soon-to-launch coronavirus tracing app now has a name: Coronalert. Produced by Brussels-based app developer Devside, it uses Bluetooth technology to keep a record of other mobile phone devices that are in close proximity of yours for 15 minutes or more. If you test positive for coronavirus, your GP will be able to enter a code into the app, which will send a message to the other devices (provided they also have the app installed), informing them that they have been in contact with an infected person. "In a supermarket queue, in restaurants or on the beach, we are not going to exchange our contact details," the developers explain.

According to RTBF, DevSide was one of two bidders for the coronavirus tracing app contract - and its bid was 10 times cheaper than the rival. According to VRT NWS, the app developer had claimed on its website to have worked with Pizza Hut, Belfius and BMW. Their logos have since disappeared from the site. "We have never worked directly with DevSide," a Pizza Hut spokesperson said.

Virologist and former interfederal spokesman Emmanuel André is stepping down from his role as coordinator of Belgium's contact tracing efforts, to resume his medical and academic work. With the contact tracing operation up-and-running for the past month, André said it was time to move on. 

With the number of new confirmed cases in decline, the workload for Brussels' contact tracers is easing. In the first fortnight, the call centre contacted 2,400 people to inform them that they had been in contact with an infected person. Last week, they only had 211 people to contact by phone - and 32 face-to-face visits.

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